Apeirogon a Powerful (but flawed) Book

Apeirogon (2020)
By Colum McCann
HarperCollins, 480 pages.

A few weeks ago, I posted a review of American Dirt that opened with the observation that if you think you can imagine what it’s like to be a Mexican refugee trying to make it into the United States, you probably can’t. Let me draw from the same well in this review of Apeirogon: If you think you’re sure of where you stand on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, you’re probably short-sighted.

I admit that I had no idea of what an apeirogon was before I read this book. It is a polygon, but hold onto your brain. It’s a two-dimensional figure “with a countably infinite number of sides.” That’s pretty abstract, but the basic idea is that no matter how many sides you see or draw, more are possible. This is Irish writer Colum McCann’s working assumption for his new “novel.” I put novel in quotes, because Apeirogon could just as easily be called a literary biography or lightly fictionalized history.

At its center are two flesh-and-blood individuals: Rami Elhanan, a 7th generation Israeli Jew, and Bassam Aramin, a native-born Palestinian. They are spearheads of Combatants for Peace, a real organization, and have become such good friends that they address each other as “brother.” Each must deal with the murder of a daughter. Rami’s 13-year-old Smadar perished in downtown Jerusalem when three suicide bombers detonated explosive vests; Bassam lost 10-year-old Abir to a rubber bullet fired by a young Israeli soldier.

McCann gives us looks at both the present and the circuitous route that led them to advocate for a peace currently scorned by a majority of their countrymen. Rami served in the military, fought in Israel’s wars, and has a father in law who was a “hero of Israel” turned peace activist. Bassam was one of the young men who used slingshots to fire stones at Israelis. At the age of 17, he tried to blow up jeeps with what turned out to be ineffective grenades and spent 7 years in prison for terrorism. This raises a potent question: How does one embrace another whose “side” caused your daughter’s death? This takes us back to the heart of the apeirogon metaphor. Why would you presume there are only two sides?

One of McCann’s major points is that both Israel and Palestine are damaged by war and occupation, which renders pointless attempts to measure relative damage. Apeirogon is often a book of parallel unsettling experiences. What does it feel like to leave the home of your best friend or a meeting of Combatants for Peace in neutral monastery and then ride your motorcycle across Palestine at night to your home in Israel? How does a Palestinian keep his cool as he sits at an Israeli checkpoint and knows, that on a good day, he’ll only be detained for a few hours?

Rami, Bassam, and their families are remarkable. Imagine an Israeli who thinks that both the occupation of Palestine and the building of West Bank settlements are illegal. Now conjure a Palestinian who goes to England and Ireland to pursue peace studies and makes the Holocaust the center of his studies. McCann explains these contradictions and coping mechanisms as, “Peace without reconciliation. To forgive but not excuse. To colonize the mind.” What drives both men and their Combatants for Peace allies is the deep belief that the status quo is an unacceptable dead end. Or, as they configure the hatred, “It’s not over until we talk.”

For a book whose title suggests an infinite number of sides, McCann dares suggest there really are but two: eternal war or peace. In this sense, the infinite number of sides references the myriad ways in which the status quo is defended and the indeterminate ways in which both sides of the conflict are damaged by it. This point is crucial. It is easy to take sides. If you are pro-Palestine, you can justify atrocities associated with the Intifada as legitimate actions of the oppressed against a repressive state; if you are pro-Israel, you argue that actions require reaction. Palestinians are terrorists whose provocations must be countered with force. Either view leaves two innocent girls dead.

Apeirogon is a powerful book, though not always a great one. McCann employs several devices; some work, some do not. The book is 480 pages long, but it could have been half as long and equally effective. There is repetition, which could be seen as reinforcement or (my view) simply redundant. McCann is a gifted writer, but I don’t think he trusts his audience to connect the dots. The danger is that the book’s length might discourage readers who most need to adjust their views.

McCann also intersperses sections on birds with the biographical narratives. We grasp early one that birds neither know about nor respect borders. They are “free” in ways that Israelis and Palestinians are not. Got that. Check. The rest of the ornithological detail is superfluous.

Still another device–perhaps inspired by the Qu’ran–is writing short bursts of text that are numbered sequentially. McCann doesn’t follow this (if I might) religiously, but he does reverse course at some point and begin to count down instead of up. It’s not clear why, which makes said exercise appear mechanistic.

Finally, I wonder if McCann grew too enamored with the very idea of the apeirogon. How may “sides” do we need to grasp the notion that they are infinite in number? I began to feel the way I fell about calculating increasing numbers of decimal points when squaring pi. Enough already!

I have read that neither Rami nor Bassam have yet managed to finish the book. Each has praised it, but have found it too “painful” to continue to the end. And isn’t pain the point? After all, “It isn’t over until we talk.”

Rob Weir

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