Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Review of Apeirogon by Colum McCann

"An absorbing tale of hope and love against very great odds"

I recently finished reading an amazing novel by Irish author Colum McCann. Apeirogon is rooted in the unlikely real-life friendship born of tragedy between two fathers - one Israeli and one Palestinian. Together, through their painful stories, these two men seek to forge a path towards empathy, compassion, and hope for Israelis and Palestinians alike.

I never got around to writing a review of this very worthy book so I'll leave it to my good friend, Ranen Omer-Sherman. The following review is posted with his permission.


While there may never be a truly definitive study of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the award-winning Irish writer Colum McCann’s astonishingly good Apeirogon surely succeeds more than most when it comes to creating an empathic, morally and aesthetically imaginative portrayal of the extent to which this tragedy has wreaked havoc on innocent human beings on both sides.

McCann is drawn to the moral implications of poet Rilke’s acute observation that “we live our lives in widening circles that reach out across the entire expanse.” Or as Rami Elhanan, one of the two bereaved men at the heart of this story, vigorously underlines in his copy of the Palestinian critic Edward Said’s Culture and Imperialism, “Survival, in fact is about the connection between things.” In our globalized, interdependent reality, that remains an essential truth, certainly for the peoples of Israel and Palestine, and that would be the thesis that guides Apeirogon in its entirety.

Rami Elhanan, an Israeli graphic designer, and Bassam Aramin, a scholar and former political prisoner, were loving parents whose worlds were torn viciously apart when their daughters became the victims of horrific violence. While it is unclear what drew McCann to their entwined stories of unbearable loss, there is no doubt that he succeeds brilliantly in capturing the complexity and humanity of his subjects. Structured as a compilation of 1001 interwoven fragments (some as short as a sentence) which often serve as a midrashic commentary on transcripts of the deeply revealing interviews the author conducted with Bassam and Rami (these appear at the heart of the book in their original form) that illuminate both life in Israel and under Occupation these often seem to perform a meditative or even musical function.

Boldly traversing disparate realms such as the Song of Songs, cinema, the Himalayan highlands, medieval art, languages, a song by Prince, and most of all birds and their migrations, McCann convincingly reveals the invisible yet essential connections between all beings.  Nonlinear, circling back on itself, and ever-expanding, this labyrinthine novel (its title, which derives from the Greek word for “boundless” refers to a shape with a countably infinite number of sides, brilliantly captures the essence of the author’s approach) constantly tests the very possibilities of the form and in doing so ignites the reader’s imagination.

But most importantly, McCann’s stylistic daring never distracts us from the plainspoken nobility and moral bravery of the two grieving fathers whose intimate friendship and support for one another over many years (the two have frequently spoken together around the world as tireless opponents of the occupation and champions of peace) becomes an absorbing tale of hope and love against very great odds. And of what it means to challenge and overcome the dangerous mythologies of one’s tribe.

There are also gripping anecdotes concerning the tenuous origins of the groups Combatants for Peace and the Parents Circle, especially those like Rami, raised in a bubble of Zionist self-righteousness and ignorance about the daily lives of Palestinians. What emerges most memorably are the poignant details of the close relationships between the men and their young daughters (eerily, the girls seem to have shared many of the same passions and quirks).

In the aftermath of tragedy, both families remain strong, and though this is very much an indelible portrait of two men, the mothers of Abir and Smadar are never forgotten and McCann diligently captures the reality of their lives throughout. For example, while both women support their husbands’ crusading public efforts against the Occupation and on behalf of coexistence, in her unrelenting grief Salwa Aramin “wanted only to pursue the ordinary. She would find blessing there…Even years after Abir’s death, the sellers in the marketplace still dropped a little extra in her shopping bag: a pear, a pinch more spice, some dates. She left the market with her bags overflowing.”

McCann is a generous, tender and inquisitive storyteller and his poetic prose glimmers with glimmering, sometimes startling imagery. Apeirogon’s fragmentary narrative teaches us how the broken pieces might yet make us whole. Written in mesmerizing, haunting detail, even Apeirogon’s most dreamlike, surreal descriptions and imagery are always firmly grounded in the real, producing an unforgettable tapestry of life and death.

Revealing the hidden connections between such a staggering array of histories and identities as imaginatively as McCann has, readers would be hard pressed to find a more sustaining fulfillment of E.M. Forster’s imperative, “Only connect!” McCann’s deep immersion in the enduring pain and triumphant moral vision of his subjects clearly transformed his own life and Apeirogon is that rare, truly essential book whose unsettling power will leave you feeling utterly transformed in turn.

Ranen Omer-Sherman is the JHFE Endowed Chair in Judaic Studies at the University of Louisville and coeditor of Narratives of Dissent: War in Contemporary Israeli Arts and Culture.

A version of this review previously appeared on the Jewish Book Council.

Buy Apeirogon and read it now!

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