Book Review | The Israeli-Palestinian Infinite Polygon
Apeirogon: A Novel
By Colum McCann
480 pp., $28
Apeirogon, the new novel by acclaimed author Colum McCann, could take place anywhere, yet is also essentially, and painfully, Israeli-Palestinian. It could be about anyone who has suffered the loss of a child, yet is so emotionally accurate that it could only be about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
An apeirogon, McCann clarified in a recent interview with Moment, is a “generalized polygon with a countably infinite number of sides.” He didn’t know what it was until he wrote the book, he admits, but it is an apt description of the complexity of the story he tells.
Apeirogon tells the real-life story of Rami Elhanan, an Israeli whose daughter Smadar was killed in a suicide bombing by a Palestinian terrorist, and Bassam Aramin, a Palestinian whose daughter Abir was killed by a rubber bullet presumably shot by an Israeli soldier. Rami and Bassam become close friends and determined peace activists.
For readers accustomed to reading or thinking about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in absolute or definitive terms, Apeirogon, like the structure for which it is named, is challenging and disconcerting—filled with perspectives that, while they may be countable, seem uncomfortably infinite and impossibly contradictory. McCann never falls into the trap of false equivalencies or facile comparisons and contrasts. He mingles times and places, combining art, history, nature and music to raise fundamental questions about loss, collective responsibility and personal engagement.
The novel is experimental in form, broken up into numbered segments; some are pages long and some as brief as a sentence. Some segments describe Israeli-Palestinian politics; others are composed only of a picture; still others are made up entirely of quotes from figures as disparate as artist Pablo Picasso and Palestinian national poet Mahmoud Darwish. A description of French president FranÇois Mitterrand’s last meal is juxtaposed with information on how Rami revs up his motorbike and with an account of the 200-foot walk taken in 1987 by French high-wire artist Philippe Petit, on a tightrope between Jerusalem’s Arab and Jewish sectors, to release a dove for peace. (The tightrope walker also appeared in McCann’s award-winning Let the Great World Spin, walking on a wire stretched between the towers of the World Trade Center in 1973.)
The structure works, and McCann’s lyrical writing compels you to continue reading while challenging most of what you thought you knew about what a novel is. As in several previous novels, notably Transatlantic, McCann is working in a hybrid form: The people he writes about are drawn from reality, but not all the events actually happened. By imagining their inner lives, McCann is able to provide us with beautifully intimate details—the smoke that fills Bassam’s lungs when he drags on a cigarette, Rami’s visceral response to an official “letter of consolation” sent by the Israeli Defense Ministry. McCann gives us the conversations between Rami and Bassam as they prepare for a meeting with foreign journalists and the intolerable waves of emotion that fill Rami’s entire being as he realizes that it is his daughter, Smadar, who was killed in the explosion. The basic events happened, but McCann draws the descriptions from his imagination.
“Some of it’s imagined, yes, but all of it is real,” McCann explains in our interview. “For some reason the world demands that we label things as fiction or nonfiction. But essentially every story is a fiction, and every story is equally a piece of nonfiction, too. In order to get to the honest core, I had to try to go deeper with the lives of Rami and Bassam. I had to get into the more anonymous moments.”
I ask him whether this deprives Rami and Bassam of agency over their lives. “I hope I have given them full agency,” McCann says. “I certainly let them read the work in advance of publication (which is something no journalist would do) and I gave them a chance to tell me to change anything. They were incredibly generous and kind.”
To read Apeirogon, then, requires us to become what McCann refers to as “creative readers.” “I have no desire to tell people what to think,” he says. “I want to throw the reader off his or her comfortable balance. If you read section 1001 you will notice that the narrator is ‘you and me.’ That is, the reader becomes the narrator.”
McCann, 55, isn’t from either side of the conflict—born in Dublin, he now lives in New York. He has written six previous novels and three collections of short stories, and he won the National Book Award in 2009 for Let the Great World Spin, set in New York City in the 1970s. But he says that it “made sense” to him to write about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The story, he says, is “about connections and longing and complicity…about peace and violence and the never-ending chords that vibrate across our worlds: the music of where we are right now. I’m interested in how we move on.
“I grew up in Ireland. I saw what the bombings could do,” he continues. “And I have lived long enough to know that peace could come out of it. And I know enough to say that peace is complicated and tough and proper. I had no specific ‘skin in the game,’ as the saying goes. I was neither pro-Palestinian nor pro-Israeli. I had no particular bias. I am, however, pro-peace. I wanted to know what was going on. And I wanted to explore it through the stories of Rami and Bassam.”
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the myriad issues around it mean so much to so many people around the world, he says, that “I think it’s disingenuous to say that it’s a local conflict.” The book, he hopes, “doesn’t lecture about Israel or Palestine. It just steps the reader into new territory. It presents a world where we can make our own opinions.”
To “step into that territory,” readers—even those of us who think we have read enough, or far too much, about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict—must adopt what McCann calls “radical empathy—a promise that, if you step into my shoes, I will step into yours.” For this Jewish Israeli, reading Apeirogon—stepping out of our contested geographical territories and into that potential territory of radical empathy—was a demanding literary, emotional and political experience, infinitely countable and ultimately significant and worthwhile. The novelist’s artistry makes it possible to accompany Rami and Bassam as, in McCann’s words, “they give one another a chance. They listen to each other. And by doing this they expand the lungs of the world.”
Eetta Prince-Gibson is Moment’s Israel editor.