On Native Grounds


“There are two kinds of visual memory,” Nabokov’s Humbert Humbert tells us. “One when you skillfully recreate an image in the laboratory of your mind with your eyes open . . . and the other when you instantly evoke, with shut eyes, on the dark innerside of your eyelids, the objective, absolutely optical replica of a beloved face, a little ghost in natural colors.” The second, of course, is how he sees Lolita. Depending on how you adjust your vision, it has everything or only something to do with Native American literature.

“We are entering textual fantasies here, not a sweat lodge,” Treuer writes in his forthcoming manifesto Native American Fiction, which champions reading the genre as a product of the American literary tradition and not, necessarily, of Native American culture. Then he says it again in a novel, The Translation of Dr. Apelles (also out from Graywolf in September), that compulsively dramatizes the synthesis of Native American signifiers and Nabokovian experimentation.

It’s not at all unlike the junctures Treuer himself represents. The son of a tribal-court-judge mother and Austrian-Jewish father, who raised him together on an Ojibwa reservation, Treuer identifies as a Native American author but also freely admits the influence of his father’s heritage. Now an English professor at the University of Minnesota, he teaches a class on Nabokov’s double-texted Pale Fire alongside one on Silko and Alexie, translates Ojibwa fiction, and also writes his own on the side. As Treuer himself is quick to note, Dr. Apelles is by far his most autobiographical novel. (The others, Little and The Hiawatha, dealt with Native families in more impoverished—and stereotypical— circumstances.)

The connection is easy to make. Dr. Apelles is the story of an educated, assimilated, more-or-less comfortable Native American translator and scholar. That eponymous hero insists, much like Treuer, that “he was not one of those professional Indians who were willing to dispense platitudes disguised as cultural treasure. He was not one of those for whom the past, because of how exotic it seemed to most people, could be used as social credit among the credulous or liberal.”

It’s a loaded comparison. Those “professionals” are surely the same authors and critics Treuer calls out by name in Native American Fiction. Silko and Alexie especially, along with others who claim simply to “speak from the heart,” make a grievous miscalculation, Treuer writes, when they count fractions of Native blood, reservation roots, and apparent absence of narrative guile as proof of an author’s authenticity. “The rest of them don’t teach,” he says. “The rest of them don’t really concern themselves, as often, with issues of intellect.” He adds, “That’s not a criticism; it’s just a difference.” But the way Native American writers generally critique each other—by feeling rather than thinking, by measures of blood and not innovation—is no way to talk about literature, at least in Treuer’s line of thinking.

Compare this with the hyperliterate, existentially dumbfounded Dr. Apelles, who, as his third-person narration betrays, harbors a secret affection for Nabokov: “He [Apelles] was a private man, with private sorrows,” Apelles writes. “Once, long ago, he had realized he must do this in order to survive. As an Indian in the world, he was, as far as most were concerned, a little ghost in living colors, with a reality of his own that was written out in the tenses of the remotest past.”

Humbert lovingly recalls Lolita’s lost innocence as a “little ghost in natural colors”; Native American writers and critics recover cultural authenticity as a ghost in living ones. In Dr. Apelles, Treuer (like Nabokov) methodically dismantles what he calls a fantasy under the guise of romance. The hero devotes himself to translating an undeniably gripping, technically false bonanza of an Indian love story. Intertwined with that fable is what Treuer presents as a real Native American romance: Dr. Apelles’s recollections of drifting, dully, from archive to apartment, slowly winning the affections of a fellow overlooked manuscripts worker.

A myriad of false documents, questionable authorships, stalled sexual encounters, and narrative disjunctions, Dr. Apelles is not to be mistaken, like the books that take the most heat in Treuer’s essays, for an anthropological project. To the contrary, Treuer pushes the metatextual games of writers like J.M. Coetzee and A.S. Byatt past the point of parody. (Even his Indian lovers mess around with signifiers: “Bimaadiz, drawing out the first syllable of her name, would say ‘Eh-taa’—and shyly, in response, she would elongate the second syllable of his name, saying ‘Bi-maaa-diz.’ “)

If the fear running through Treuer’s essays is that Native American literature, his own books included, often doesn’t receive the critical engagement it merits, then Dr. Apelles comes with its own Cliff’s Notes doubly embedded. Each of the love stories—Eta and Bimaadiz’s, and Dr. Apelles’s—uncovers the neuroses driving the other. And if this simultaneous exposition and commentary compose the total substance of the book, then this, too, is exposed as the overwhelming preoccupation of the author.

Treuer doesn’t like to talk too much about roots, but to bring his father’s side into it, he’s quick to contrast his critique of Native fiction with the emergence of Jewish American literature. Groundbreaking writers like Roth and Bellow “had incredible ambition in fiction, to make something new,” Treuer says. “They weren’t just trying to provide a translation of the Jewish experience; they were creating new languages.” This, he claims, is his own aspiration—to write Native American literature “that is transformative, not just reflective,” and to be read as a writer first and a Native American second.

Silko once accused Louise Erdrich of caring more about postmodernism than the struggles of Native Americans. It’s a bizarre binary, and one that Treuer, in his essays, proves intent on contradicting. This is perhaps because, given that same choice as an author, he might choose postmodernism.