By – May 21, 2020

In his new nov­el, Apeirogon, award-win­ning Irish writer Colum McCann has cre­at­ed a moral­ly and aes­thet­i­cal­ly imag­i­na­tive por­tray­al of the extent to which the Israeli-Pales­tin­ian con­flict has wreaked hav­oc on inno­cent human beings on both sides.

Rami Elhanan, an Israeli graph­ic design­er, and Pales­tin­ian Bas­sam Aramin, a schol­ar and for­mer polit­i­cal pris­on­er, were lov­ing par­ents whose worlds were vicious­ly torn apart when their daugh­ters became the vic­tims of hor­rif­ic vio­lence. While it is unclear what drew McCann to their entwined sto­ries of unbear­able loss, there is no doubt that he suc­ceeds bril­liant­ly in cap­tur­ing the com­plex­i­ty and human­i­ty of his sub­jects. The nov­el is struc­tured as a com­pi­la­tion of 1001 inter­wo­ven frag­ments (some as short as a sen­tence) which often serve as a midrashic com­men­tary on tran­scripts of the deeply reveal­ing inter­views the author con­duct­ed with Bas­sam and Rami, which appear at the heart of the book in their orig­i­nal form, and illu­mi­nate both life in Israel and under Occu­pa­tion. These brief sec­tions often seem to per­form a med­i­ta­tive or even musi­cal function.

Bold­ly tra­vers­ing dis­parate realms, such as the Song of Songs, cin­e­ma, the Himalayan high­lands, medieval art, lan­guages, a song by Prince, and, most of all, birds and their migra­tions, McCann reveals the invis­i­ble yet essen­tial con­nec­tions between all beings. Non­lin­ear and ever-expand­ing, this labyrinthine novel’s title, which derives from the Greek word for bound­less,” refers to a shape with a count­ably infi­nite num­ber of sides, cap­tures the essence of the author’s approach. But McCann’s styl­is­tic dar­ing nev­er dis­tracts us from the plain­spo­ken nobil­i­ty and moral brav­ery of the two griev­ing fathers whose inti­mate friend­ship and sup­port for one anoth­er over many years (the two have fre­quent­ly spo­ken togeth­er around the world as tire­less oppo­nents of the Occu­pa­tion and cham­pi­ons of peace) becomes an absorb­ing tale of hope and love against great odds — and of what it means to chal­lenge and over­come the dan­ger­ous mytholo­gies of one’s tribe.

There are also grip­ping anec­dotes con­cern­ing the ten­u­ous ori­gins of the groups Com­bat­ants for Peace and the Par­ents Cir­cle, espe­cial­ly those sim­i­lar to Rami, raised in a bub­ble of Zion­ist self-right­eous­ness and igno­rance about the dai­ly lives of Pales­tini­ans, and poignant details about the close rela­tion­ships between the men and their young daugh­ters (eeri­ly, the girls seem to have shared many of the same pas­sions and quirks). In the after­math of tragedy, both fam­i­lies remain strong, and though this is very much an indeli­ble por­trait of two men, the moth­ers of Abir and Smadar are nev­er for­got­ten and McCann cap­tures the real­i­ty of their lives through­out. For exam­ple, while both women sup­port their hus­bands’ cru­sad­ing pub­lic efforts against the Occu­pa­tion and on behalf of coex­is­tence, in her unre­lent­ing grief Sal­wa Aramin want­ed only to pur­sue the ordi­nary. Even years after Abir’s death, the sell­ers in the mar­ket­place still dropped a lit­tle extra in her shop­ping bag: a pear, a pinch more spice, some dates. She left the mar­ket with her bags overflowing.”

McCann is a gen­er­ous, empath­ic, and inquis­i­tive sto­ry­teller whose prose glim­mers with star­tling imagery. Yet even the novel’s most dream­like, sur­re­al descrip­tions are always firm­ly ground­ed in the real, pro­duc­ing an unfor­get­table tapes­try of life and death. Apeirogon’s frag­ment­ed nar­ra­tive teach­es us how the bro­ken pieces might yet make us whole.

Ranen Omer-Sher­man is the JHFE Endowed Chair in Juda­ic Stud­ies at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Louisville and his lat­est book is Imag­in­ing the Kib­butz: Visions of Utopia in Lit­er­a­ture & Film.

Discussion Questions

In this superbly writ­ten and vision­ary nov­el, Colum McCann takes on a cru­cial and per­ti­nent issue. Choos­ing an apt metaphor for his title — an apeirogon is a shape with a count­ably infi­nite num­ber of sides — he cre­ates a kalei­do­scop­ic, heart­break­ing nov­el around the Israeli– Pales­tin­ian con­flict and much, much more. In a struc­tur­al nod to One Thou­sand and One Nights, the novel’s 1001 sec­tions vary in length and in design from brief descrip­tions, to images, to mul­ti-page nar­ra­tives. And as we read, we fall in love with the sto­ries and the sto­ry­teller, a con­tem­po­rary Scheherazade.

The nov­el is inspired by the friend­ship between two men, Bas­sam Aramin and Rami Elhanan, a Pales­tin­ian and an Israeli, each of whom lost a daugh­ter to the con­flict, one in a sui­cide bomb­ing, the oth­er from a ran­dom bul­let. Their sto­ries are at the pas­sion­ate heart of the nov­el, which radi­ates out into med­i­ta­tions on art, nature, pol­i­tics, and his­to­ry. With mes­mer­iz­ing imag­i­na­tive dex­ter­i­ty, McCann builds lay­er upon lay­er of under­stand­ing, com­plex­i­ty, and com­pas­sion to exam­ine myr­i­ad aspects of Israeli and Pales­tin­ian life on the ground while skill­ful­ly inter­weav­ing oth­er, seem­ing­ly dis­parate, evoca­tive nar­ra­tive moments — from Mitterrand’s funer­al meal, to the birds that fly over the desert, to Borges’ fas­ci­na­tion with the Kabbalah.

Apeirogon is orig­i­nal, deeply mov­ing, and unfor­get­table — in oth­er words, a mas­ter­piece of con­tem­po­rary writ­ing that will res­onate with every reader.