Review by Anna Hollingsworth
The most exhilarating reviews to write are those where you can bring a book down, even if it’s just a tiny bit for an odd stylistic mishap; the boring ones are those where you can’t fault anything. Colum McCann’s Apeirogon makes, very, very boring reviewing.
The inception of the novel goes back to five years ago when McCann was wandering around the Middle East. He struggled with the omnipresence of the seemingly never-ending Israel-Palestine conflict but thought he could weather it, having witnessed the war-torn Northern Ireland and Sarajevo. His breaking point arrived when he met Bassam Aramin and Rami Elhanan. One Palestinian, the other Israeli, the wall between the two had been brought down after they each lost a daughter. Apeirogon is their story.
Bassam’s ten-year-old Abir had just bought a candy bracelet from the shop across the street from her school when the back of her skull was shattered by a rubber bullet from the border police patrolling outside. Ten years later, in 2007, Rami’s thirteen-year-old daughter Smadar was killed by a suicide bomber while out shopping with her friends. The now of the novel is set after both events, against the backdrop of Bassam’s and Rami’s work as part of the Parents Circle, an organisation for people who have lost relatives to the conflict. The two unlikely friends travel telling their stories to audiences across the world.
However, the reader is presented with much more than the real-life audiences: McCann navigates skillfully between Bassam’s time in the UK studying the Holocaust, Rami’s work with foreign film crews, Bassam’s years in prison for throwing a stone, Rami’s time doing military service. Yet the author always rewinds back to the killings of the girls. Sometimes they make an appearance as fleeting mentions, but more often they are presented in excruciating detail: the narrative zooms into how the dying Abir spent hours in an ambulance because of road blocks, or what human remains were scattered in the street after the explosion that killed Smadar. It lingers on details like phones running out of battery at the moment of disaster, and the painful question, on hearing the news of a bomb, of whether this time fate is pointing its finger at you.
In mathematics, an apeirogon is a polygon with a countably infinite number of sides; for the mathematically challenged reader (like me), this means that all its points are connected, serving as a powerful symbol for the complexity of the Middle East. That is also exactly how McCann writes.
He has said that he finds plot “juvenile”. Perhaps that’s true in that the basic plot of Apeirogon is very simple — two killings and the grief that ensues —, but the themes and stories that frame it are far from so. For instance, birds are a recurrent theme: McCann paints images of children slingshotting them with stones and veers into old stories of falconry. The creatures that are meant to fly freely but are brutally captured are just one of many poignant symbols for the crisis. The destruction and rebuilding of the minbar of Saladin, the pulpit that sat in the Al-Asqa mosque in Jerusalem for 800 years, is another. It was burnt by an Australian tourist and, after years of contemplation of how to do it, it was reassembled by an international cast of craftspeople. In the context of Apeirogon, meanings keep being layered onto the story.
Some books are more music than words. Apeirogon is more jazz than anything else: one-sentence paragraphs are mixed with page-long streams without full stops, ancient history and myth alternate with reality, and propaganda is stirred in with drily delivered social and political criticism. The snippets — in want of a better term — are numbered as if chapters but that’s not what they really are. Rather, they allow the narrative to jump between wherever McCann’s improvisation takes it, just like in jazz. This means that although Apeirogon is dubbed a novel on its cover, a lot of the time it feels more like poetry than a novel in any traditional sense.
Just like it stretches the definition of a novel, Apeirogon stretches the readers’ understanding of the conflict and its personal and political effects. McCann’s “chapters” run from one to a thousand and back again, but at the end the reader is very far from “back again”. Apeirogon is simply beautiful in all its brutality — but, like I said, a very boring book to review.
Anna is a bookworm, a linguistics student and student journalist.
Colum McCann, Apeirogon (Bloomsbury, 2020). 978-1526607904, 463pp., hardback.BUY at Blackwell’s via our affiliate link (free UK P&P)