By Colum McCann
In geometry, an apeirogon, or infinite polygon, is a shape with an endless but theoretically countable number of sides. Colum McCann’s new novel, which takes its title from this figure, is composed of 1001 incantatory factual segments, presumably in homage to One Thousand And One Nights, which range from descriptions of rubber bullet manufacturing to literary anecdotes about Jorge Luis Borges, from meditations on the flight patterns of migrant birds to musings on the architecture and contents of the mansion of Munib al-Masri, the richest man in Palestine.
McCann uses this form to grapple with what is undoubtedly the longest-running and most egregious example of ongoing human rights violations in modern history: the Occupation of Palestinian lands by the rogue state of Israel. However, because he perceives life to be rarely black-and-white, and because, when you drill down into them, stories can have many sides, his angle of approach is not partisan, polemical or, indeed, ideological (in the current, negative sense of the term as rigidly close-minded – usually invoked as a criticism of left-wing politics, as though the Left holds a monopoly on ideology, and as though having a coherent worldview is a bad thing – rather than in the original, positive meaning of ‘science of ideas’).
Instead, in what is termed a ‘hybrid novel’ because the two protagonists and their immediate families are real live people, and their life experiences actually happened, McCann chooses to bless these peacemakers, both of whom believe that Israelis and Palestinians share ‘an equity of pain’.
Rami Elhanan, 67 on the single day in 2016 on which the main narrative takes place, is a ‘graduate of the Holocaust’, a graphic designer and Israeli military veteran. In September 1997, his 13-year-old daughter Smadar was killed in a suicide bombing carried out by three Palestinians in Jerusalem. Although initially reluctant, he subsequently joins the Parents’ Circle, an organization whose members from both sides of the Israeli/Palestinian divide have all lost a child in the conflict. Nineteen years younger than Elhanan, Palestinian Bassam Aramin is jailed aged 17 in 1985, for throwing stones at Israeli occupiers in Hebron, where he grew up living in a cave, a ‘child of the Nakba’. During his imprisonment, writings by Gandhi and Martin Luther King, and friendship with one of the Israeli guards, convince him of the power of nonviolence. Released when he is 25, he helps found Combatants for Peace, which brings Palestinian and Israeli fighters – among them Elhanan’s son Elik, who introduces the two men – together for dialogue. The fatal shooting in 2005 of Bassam’s 10-year-old daughter, Abir, by an anonymous Israeli border guard in a jeep, fails to shake his core belief in a peaceful solution to the ongoing impasse. He goes onto to complete a Master’s degree in Peace Studies in Bradford, his thesis topic being the Holocaust.
He and Elhanan begin meeting daily, using their daughters’ stories and their shared bereavement to become international advocates for peace: ‘It doesn’t matter to them where they speak. Most of the time they meet in hotel conference rooms. Or in the auditoriums of schools. Or the back rooms of community centers. Every now and then in vast theatres. It is always the same story, heard differently in each place. And it is this, they know, which keeps them going: the finite words on an infinite plane.’ Their individual testimonies form the centerpiece of the book. Complexities abound, such as the fact that Rami’s father-in-law, Peled, an ex-army general turned ‘peacenik’ lecturer at Tel Aviv University in Palestinian poetry, thought that: ‘Holding on to the Territories was a mistake, contrary to a secure Jewish democracy’; and that Rami’s wife, Nurit, an anti-war activist and academic, holds Israel, not the bombers, responsible for Smadar’s murder: ‘The bombers were victims too.’ Crucially, both men still believe that the Israeli Occupation is wrong, and that peace will never be achieved while it exists.
Some readers may find the refractive structure of the text, and its sheer length, off-putting, but they are probably the kind of people who favour figurative over nonrepresentational art, or easy-listening musical arrangements over modal, atonal or dissonant compositions – in short, those who prefer to spend their free time in pursuits other than engaging with challenging, demanding and unsettling works of art. Such criticism would also fail to take into account the heft of the human story which pulses through these pages.
Other detractors may bemoan the classical liberal tendency to elide specific discussion of the culpability for the situation, a potentially contentious omission in a fraught neo-colonial/revisionist tinderbox. But assigning blame and taking sides is not McCann’s method. In contemporary parlance, he ‘posts without comment’ and lets the facts speak for themselves as, for example, in this entry, which also illustrates the depth of his research: ‘In the West Bank an arrangement was made by Mekorot, the Israeli national water company, to make the price for settlers as cheap as possible. Palestinians paid up to four times the price. Privately the water executives called the deal the Swimming Pool clause.’
As Jewish-American writer Nathan Englander has remarked, in a sly reference to McCann’s previous novel Let The Great World Spin, ‘Colum McCann loves a high-wire act.’ The courage with which McCann walks his vertiginous tightrope here, given the potential for alienating the more militant on either side, is commendably audacious. He is already, it hardly needs to be reiterated here, one of the finest writers of his generation, Irish or otherwise. Apeirogon can only further consolidate his reputation.
First published in The Irish Times, February 29th, 2020.