• Review
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.

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