“Remarkably even-handed” – Apeirogon by Colum McCann

In Apeirogon Colum McCann portrays the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through two families. One family has had a daughter killed by an Israeli soldier, the other lost a daughter in a suicide bombing. The two families should face each other across an unbridgeable divide but, instead, the two fathers are friends and work together for peace. Their relationship is built on shared loss but, also, the hope of a shared future:

“the duration of the present, combined with the echo of the past, while trying to negotiate a clearer pathway to the future.”

It is an inspirational story, especially if you grew up in Northern Ireland, and with that parallel McCann has created a story that glances at other conflicts around the world.

Apeirogon takes us, in many ways, through twin strands of Colum McCann’s career. He began as a journalist, becoming a newspaper columnist at 21, while his best-known novels, especially Let the Great World Spin, move between multiple characters who witness a single event, yet remain unconnected. Here he portrays two characters, depicted biographically but in the intense, interior detail fiction allows.

McCann quotes Edward Said, “Survival, in fact, is about the connection between things,” and that echo of the novelist’s credo ‘Only connect’ sums up his aim. He fictionalises a real-life situation, as he explains: “all storytelling, weaves together elements of speculation, memory, fact and imagination.” Like W.G. Sebald, what is documentary and what is fictionalised may be open to debate but it powerfully displays his characters’ experience and pain while conveying the history that has brought them to this place. McCann never loses sight that the deaths of their daughters is brought about by the intricacies of the conflict in which they live, “the crime of her geography.”

Rami and Bassam are finely drawn individuals and deeply entwined in the histories of their respective communities. They have overcome prejudice to investigate the background of their ‘enemy’: “An Israeli against the Occupation. A Palestinian, studying the Holocaust.” In more simplistic hands, they would be portrayed as victims or casualties of forces beyond their control. Instead, they are shown as individuals (within their historical context), when they first meet: “the only thing they had in common was that both sides had once wanted to kill people they did not know.” Slowly they find a great deal in common, “families, histories, shadows,” but always rooted in their daughters, “Smadar was born in Hadassah hospital. Where Abir died.” Their relationship asks a question contained within a sixth-century Arabic poem quoted by McCann: “Is there any hope that this desolation can bring us solace?”

The narrative moves forward in short sections, 1,001 of them. Some are a single sentence while others are longer, including two (relatively) long sections that fill in Rami’s and Bassam’s backgrounds in their own voices (a fine display of McCann’s novelistic skill and impeccable empathy) and their own involvement in the conflict. Rami was once an Israeli soldier while Bassam is a Palestinian who was imprisoned (and went on hunger strike). Their stories proceed in parallel as “the most unlikely of friends,” who serve to prove that “anything which creates emotional ties between human beings inevitably counteracts war.”

Apeirogon contains much of McCann’s most empathetic, emotionally wrought writing. It seems more personal, more focussed on wider truths (through the prism of these two individuals): “But peace is a fact. A matter of time. Look at South Africa, Northern Ireland, Germany, France, Japan, even Egypt.” We are drawn, repeatedly, to look at this friendship amid a major conflict, its parallels to other conflicts but also what it reveals about the possibility of reconciliation (even if it is through shared grief): “Bassam and Rami gradually came to understand that they would use the force of their grief as a weapon.”

Any Cop?: Apeirogon provides such depth to the characters of Rami and Bassam that it provides a new understanding of the origins, and consequences, of the conflict they live through. A remarkably even-handed description that never loses sight of the faith that sustains them: “But peace is a fact. A matter of time.”


James Doyle

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