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Apeirogon: A tale of understanding and hope from the Israel-Palestine conflict

Two real combatants on either side of the conflict come together in Colum McCann's powerful novel.

When I was about three-quarters of the way through this book, Donald Trump, with Benjamin Netanyahu at his side, announced his much-vaunted “peace plan” for the Middle East. This deeply unjust proposal could easily have been another piece of the extraordinary mosaic that is award-winning writer Colum McCann’s new novel, Apeirogon.

The title? It means a shape with an infinite number of sides that can, however, be counted. There’s no conventional plot, narrative, timeline, character development or readily discernible and accessible structure. Behold, instead, hundreds of numbered fragments, some just a sentence, some lengthier, that gradually cohere to tell a compelling story. At its heart, it’s about Israel and Palestine, but it’s also about much more.

The two men at the book’s heart are real figures. Rami Elhanan is an Israeli. Bassam Aramin is a Palestinian and a Muslim. Their worlds, geographically so close, are unimaginably different – and McCann tellingly reveals the differences. What brings them together is death: some years apart, both lost their daughters. Elhanan’s, 13-year-old Smadar, was killed by a Palestinian suicide bomber while shopping with her girlfriends; Bassam’s Abir, aged 10, was shot and killed outside her school by an Israeli soldier.

Both men had made their own contribution to the ceaseless violence in this land: Aramin was imprisoned for seven years for a grenade attack on a group of Israelis; Elhanan fought in the Israeli Defense Forces. Both initially felt only the need for vengeance against their children’s murderers. But through the organisation Combatants for Peace, the two fathers became friends and, in the face of both admiration and hatred, advocates for an end to the fighting and to the occupation.

McCann writes, assembles and arranges apparently unconnected but always precisely and cleverly placed snippets – of history, information about the habits and flight paths of birds, evocations of culture, instances of cruelty, shared humanity and generosity – that echo and link and combine. Everything matters. Everything inexorably contributes to a gripping and immensely readable whole. It is invidious, perhaps, to mention individual examples, but consider Aramin’s initially disbelieving but horrified discovery of the Holocaust while watching TV in jail. Or the fact that, when more than 700,000 Palestinians fled or were evicted from their homes in 1948, hundreds went to South America, where many died on long journeys in search of work. When their bodies were found years later, on a string at the neck or wrist of several skeletons was “the key belonging to the door of a house in what had become, now, Israel”.

Occasionally, McCann’s style is a little self-conscious, but almost always it is clear, controlled and often arresting. He takes a huge risk subverting what we may think of as a novel; he has made something that shouldn’t, and easily couldn’t, work succeed triumphantly.

If ever there were an argument for the power of fiction, for the strength and reach of its voice, Apeirogon is it. Read it, weep, understand – and hope.

APEIROGON, by Colum McCann (Bloomsbury, $32.99)

This article was first published in the February 29, 2020 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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