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Review: The Translation of Dr Apelles by David Treuer

"In the middle of one of the most gripping action sequences in the Aeneid , Virgil deliberately calls attention to the artificiality of the story he is telling. It occurs in Book II, in the account of the sack of Troy. Virgil first says the Trojan horse is made of fir; a hundred lines later, he says it's made of maple; next it turns to oak; and, still later, it's pine. Not only does the horse's protean essence function as a metaphor for the inherent deceptiveness of Greek gifts, it serves to remind us that we are hearing a tale told to the Carthaginians by one very interested participant -- Aeneas -- thus alerting us to the presence of more subtle fabrications.

Late in David Treuer's deeply crafty, shape-shifting third novel, The Translation of Dr Apelles , he echoes Virgil. Lest the many inconsistencies in his novel be mistaken for authorial sloppiness, he arranges for the climactic scene of one of his two interwoven narratives to occur under a council tree in the middle of an Indian village. That tree is first an oak; eight pages later, it's a beech; two pages after that, it's a basswood. This should give some idea of the sophisticated game Treuer is playing. The hidden theme of his novel is that fiction is all about games, lies and feints, about the heightened pleasure we can derive from a narrative when we recognize that it is artful. Further -- and this is what readers allergic to "postmodern" or "metafictional" writing fail to see -- this literary strategy, in the right hands, can movingly evoke the real world, in which people are able to communicate with each other, or, say, fall in love, only by crafting stories about themselves, by becoming the unreliable narrators of their own lives."

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