APEIROGON: A NOVEL by Colum McCann

(Israeli settlers waving the flag at Palestinian demonstrators by the “separation wall”)

The Palestinian-Israeli conflict has transpired for at least a century if one accepts the Balfour Declaration as its origin in 1917 and it developed into an ongoing struggle for its participants in 1948 with the creation of the state of Israel.  After numerous wars, intifadas, and a daily application of violence the toll on all people has been horrendous.  With that as a background Colum McCann introduces his latest novel, APEIROGON an attempt to provide insight into suffering and the intangibles that allow this conflict to persist to this day.  According to the dictionary an apeirogon is “a polygon having an infinite number of sides and vertices” which fits the structure of McCann’s work.  The author describes his new book as “a hybrid novel with invention at its core, a work of storytelling, weaves together elements of speculation, memory, fact, and imagination” the core of which is the relationship between Rami Elhanan, a sixty-seven year old Israeli whose daughter, Smadar was killed in a 1997 suicide bombing in Jerusalem, and Bassam Aramin, a forty-eight year old Palestinian whose daughter, Abir was killed by an Israeli rubber bullet on the West Bank in 2007.  McCann’s inspiration to write the novel is the real-life friendship between Rami and Bassam, two men united in their grief and their life’s work was to tell the story of what happened to their daughters.  The book is labeled a novel but in reality, it is a combination of fiction and non-fiction whose events are recognizable to those who follow the region, though even what appears to be fiction can be categorized as real.

McCann employs birds as a symbolic means of describing the plight of the Palestinian and to a lesser extent the Israeli people.  The migratory birds who travel freely know no boundaries which is in sharp contrast to the limitation of movement for the Palestinian people who must navigate “the Wall” constructed by the Israeli government to separate the West Bank and Israel, the numerous military checkpoints that are employed by the Israeli government, and the Israeli policy of apartheid.

The retelling of Rami and Bassam’s life histories is poignant.  Rami fought in the 1973 Yom Kippur War is married with four children living in Jerusalem with a career as a graphic artist.  Bassam was a militant in his youth and at seventeen was imprisoned, beaten and tortured.  He would remain incarcerated for seven years and upon his release his life took a different turn as he pursued poetry, married and became the father of five children.  His family lived in the village of Anata which is located next to the Shu’fat refugee camp.

Israel is a society under constant surveillance either by the Mossad, military patrol, satellites, and blimps.  McCann effectively describes Rami’s dilemma as a person who has seen too much violence and believes that peace can only come through honest negotiations and compromise.  He “often felt that there were nine or ten Israelis inside him, fighting.  The conflicted one. The shamed one.  The enamored one.  The bereaved one.  The one who marveled at the blimp’s invention.  The one who knew the blimp was watching.  The one watching back.  The one who wanted to be watched.  The anarchist.  The protestor.  The one sick and tired of all the seeing.”  Bassam would go on to co-found Combatants for Peace which is used by McCann to delve into Israeli-Palestinian frustrations and hatred for the status quo as he explores the daily indignities that the Palestinian people experience.

Map of West Bank

McCann defines the effect of the Nakba on the Palestinian people, and the effect of the Holocaust on Israelis.  He compares the two and how they have similar meanings to their individual victims.  McCann integrates the history of the Holocaust and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict throughout.  The removal of Palestinians from their homes during the 1948 war, life in refugee camps along with a very disturbing description of Theresienstadt, and Smadar’s grandfather’s inability to discuss surviving the concentration camps for many decades comes to the fore.  Bassam will travel to England to enroll in Bradford University to earn an advanced degree in Holocaust studies.  He wanted to talk and learn about the use of the past as a means of justifying the present.  “About the helix of history, one moment bound to the next.  About where the past intersected with the future.”  For Bassam he needed clarity for the past, present, and the future.

Rami and Bassam met at a hotel picnic table where eight Israelis and three Palestinians were gathering for the Combatants for Peace.  Rami had founded his own organization Parents Circle and was curious when his son Elik had invited him to attend.  To be a member of the Circle one had to have lost a child, to be one of the bereaved.  This was the beginning of an important personal relationship as Rami and Bassam would learn to lean on each other in crisis’.

Numerous historical figures appear throughout McCann’s rendition of the Palestinian-Israeli crisis.  Biblical figures abound, Roman history is recounted, the 19th century explorer-philosopher, Sir Richard Burton, Albert Einstein, Sigmund Freud, Mohammad Ali, John Kerry, Yasir Arafat, Pablo Picasso, Philippe Petit, General Matti Peled, Smadar’s grandfather and peace advocate, and George Mitchell, the last person who was tasked to bring peace to the region.  McCann accurately describes the “smashed jigsaw” that Mitchell confronted that included PLO, JDL, LEHI, PFLP, ALA, PIJ, CPT, IWPS, ICAHD, AIC, AATW, EIJ, JTJ, ISM, AEI, NIF, ACRI, RHR, BDS, PACBI, BNC and the difficulty of deciding where to begin.

To compare the raw emotions that Rami and Bassam have dealt with is heart rendering.  But also, the realization by Rami that it is “a disaster to discover the humanity of your enemy, his nobility, because then he is not your enemy anymore, he just can’t be.”  As each has to deal with the Israeli bureaucracy and military as it tries to learn the plight of their daughters on the day they were murdered is heart wrenching.  It is symbolic of the time period in which we live.  Novels dealing with this topic are at times a product of events. In the 1990s with the Oslo Accords, novelists could be more upbeat, but today as each side has retreated into belligerent isolation with Donald Trump making a farce of the peace process it is not surprising what McCann delivers in his novel.  But the lesson that emerges is that “the only revenge is making peace.”

As Julie Orringer writes in her New York Times, February 24, 2020 review, “Apeirogon is an empathy engine, utterly collapsing the gulf between teller and listener.  By replicating the messy nonlinear passage of time, by dealing in unexpected juxtapositions that reveal latent truths, it allows us to inhabit the interiority of human beings who are not ourselves.  It achieves its aim by merging acts of imagination and extrapolation with historical fact.  But it’s indisputably a novel, and to my mind, an exceedingly important one.  It does far more than make an argument for peace; it is, itself, an agent of change.”

“I began to think, Rami tells us in his central chapter, that I had stumbled upon the most important question of them all:  What can you do personally, in order to try and help prevent this unbearable pain for others?

McCann has registered his answer, one so powerful that it impels us to find our own.”

The Separation Wall and the Sh'uafat Refugee Camp are seen following a snow storm, on February 20, 2015. Yotam Ronen / Activestills.org

(Separation wall between Israel and the West Bank)

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