BY COLUM MCCANN
RANDOM HOUSE, 2020
As was ably displayed in his previous novels and stories, Colum McCann is a writer of true literary dexterity. In 2003, still in his thirties and having published his third novel, Dancer, McCann was named “Best and Brightest” novelist by Esquire magazine. He had potential written all over him. But his great breakthrough came with the 2009 publication of Let the Great World Spin, which earned him a coveted National Book Award.
At that point McCann had to face that one thing that is both desired and dreaded by many writers: the concept that to the one who much is given, much is expected. There are writers who reach their apogee and are done, left to shoulder the unbearable reality of being old news. Such has not been the case with McCann. He has continued to be productive and, arguably, important. His latest effort, Apeirogon, is proof enough that the peaks of artistic accomplishment can be scaled more than once in a lifetime.
The English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge once pronounced, back in 1827, that prose were words in their best order and poetry was the best words in their best order. The wonderful mystery about poetry is how those very precise and often transcendent words find their way into the consciousness of the poet. But what is so very rare is for that magic to find itself in the words of a novelist. Immediately coming to mind are the books of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, a man whose use of language almost overwhelms the story he is telling. Reading his books, for me, is to fall in love with his assemblage of words. This is also the greatest strength in the novels of Colum McCann. His books read like long narrative poems and one is easily startled at the richness of the colors, the sounds, and the textures he creates.
I must confess that in picking up a copy of his newest novel, Apeirogon, I had to reach for my dictionary before even hearing the first lovely cracking of the spine. The word is a fascinating one all by itself. An apeirogon is a geometric figure with an observably infinite number of sides, a term that stretches the mind to uncomfortable places. The choice of this word, as it relates to the subject matter of the novel—the seemingly endless Israeli-Palestinian conflict—is poetic. And yet my first thought was: Why would an Irishman living in New York City wish to take on such a supremely challenging and confusing subject? I quickly put that aside as McCann’s story began to unfold.
Indeed, his opening words gently and quickly draw you into the distress that is Palestine: “The hills of Jerusalem are a bath of fog.”
So often with subjects such as this, the enormity of the social and political complications overwhelm the humanity that underlies them. Those issues too easily get lost in what might one day be described in history books. What McCann does, with humility and compassion, is touch the most tender parts of this ongoing torment.
Apeirogon is the story of two men, an Arab Palestinian named Bassam and an Israeli Jew named Rami. They share a terrible affliction in the midst of the political tensions, but in mirror image: both have lost a young daughter to violence inflicted by the other side. The novel explores their pain, in the images in their minds that will never cease to appear and reappear.
Bassam, the Palestinian, is the father of a little girl named Abir. We learn that “the bullet that killed Abir traveled fifteen meters through the air before it smashed into the back of her head, crushing the bones in her skull like those of a tiny ortolan. She had gone to the grocery store to buy candy.”
His daughter’s death becomes the life story of Bassam Aramin. Even eight years of beatings and torture in an Israeli prison were easier to bear compared to the pain of what is now forever absent.
Rami Elhanan is an Israeli Jew, a former soldier in the way almost all Israelis are former soldiers due to national service requirements. He too has lost a young daughter to a group of Palestinian suicide bombers. Her name was Smadar. She had gone into town with friends to shop. Like all Israeli parents do when they hear there’s been a bombing, Rami and his wife tried to find her and not to assume the worst. This time, the worst had come to pass: “The force of the blast on Ben Yehuda Street knocked her high in the air.”
Before his daughter is killed, Bassam forms a group called “Combatants for Peace,” having realized that both sides of the Israeli-Palenstinian conflict share a dedication to killing people they don’t know. Later, he and Rami encounter each other in a group called “The Parents Circle,” which brings people from both sides together to share the stories of their common loss of children to the violence, which appears in spasms and is never far from the consciousness of anyone who lives in Gaza or the West Bank. They no longer care who’s right and who’s wrong, who is most aggrieved. They will speak their grief and their tragic realities until the violence ends.
Bassam recalls the words of an Arabian poet of antiquity who he read while in prison: “If you divide death by life you will find a circle.”
The two men become close friends and set out to speak all over the world to anyone who will listen. “Basam and Rami,” the narrator explains, “gradually came to understand that they would use the force of their grief as a weapon.” Their goal is to send the message that there is no time for hatred and revenge, that the madness simply must stop. The two men travel the world to speak on the matter and of having lost children in this now nearly seventy-five-year-old conflict.
At one point Bassam travels to Washington, DC, to speak to a large group, and finds himself sitting in the office of John Kerry, who at the time the novel takes place is secretary of state. Bassam feels strongly that US foreign policy is partially to blame for the lack of resolution. He looks Kerry in the eye and says, “you killed my daughter.” After a lengthy and sincere discussion, Kerry accepts a photograph of Bassam’s dead daughter, Abir, and hangs it on his office wall.
McCann’s brilliance as a novelist shines in bits of metaphorical information he employs to shed more light on his subject. These are things that can seem like abrupt departures, but which he laces in deftly, a demonstration of literary dexterity used to great effect. His characters expand before us. For example, the story pauses to inform the reader of the names of all the many species of birds to be found in this small spot on the globe, letting us know that “It is the world’s second busiest migratory superhighway: at least four hundred different species of birds torrent through, riding different levels in the sky.” And so it has been through the centuries, here in the nexus of human history, culture, and religion.
Despite Bassam and Rami’s attempts to provide healing and resolution for the struggling people of Gaza, Israeli and Palestinian alike, Apeirogon, like the geometric figure it’s named for, does not neatly conclude anything. Sadly, the Parents Circle is ever expanding.