by Colum McCann
Reviewed by Miles Lowry
To my way of thinking, there is nothing more delightful than to be a stranger. And so I mingle with human beings, because they are not of my kind, and precisely in order to be a stranger among them. - Song of the Swallow: The Thousand and One Nights
Apeirogon - a novel by Colum McCann
Colum McCann’s 7th Novel, Apeirogon, forms an intimate labyrinth around the palpable grief living within its pages. It is the real-life story of Bassam Aramin and Rami Elhanan, a Palestinian and an Israeli, who meet after the deaths of their daughters, Abir and Smadar, each killed during their daily routines. By Wiki-definition an apeirogon is “a mathematical form with an infinitely countable number of sides”.
Echoing the folk tales of The Thousand and One Nights, the book is shaped in 1001 numbered sections of varying lengths. Through this exploration of form and with emotional heft, we discover a story in pieces, shattered and coming back together so as not to be forgotten. The form of the novel’s multiple sections sometimes is pared to a few sentences or a single phrase. Occasionally a blank space is framed on the page in a thin black line. Within this complex and at times disturbingly precise real-life account the effect of a blank space is strangely chilling, a sense of something permanently gone. The occasional photograph also appears and is left to speak for itself.
The book reveals its facets in these sensitive details. Migratory birds freely pass over the walls and barriers that humans have built as the families cherish the last smells and textures, those sensual gifts left to the grieving parent. Their daughter’s lives and teenage obsessions become their obsessions, ways of holding onto the person whose life is taken in a terrible finite instance. The effect on the reader is powerful. McCann takes us where words and images are born in crucial moments.
At the novel’s numeric centre we find ourselves at the emotional heart of the book where each father’s personal testimonial is contained. In the shared gatherings of a Parents Circle they speak and listen, finally with a safe place to honour their losses.They speak in their own voices telling their story to strangers. This friendship in grief also gives them a place to reach out. Here they find others who feel the need to make their loss something meaningful. They are all looking to a future their child will never see.
In some ways this conflict is close to home for the Dublin born Mccann, author of the National Book Award winning, Let the Great World Spin, and many highly acclaimed works. McCann’s Irish roots are never far from his heart and mind. The troubles in Ireland are painfully similar as are the complexities of occupation, a word still most likely to divide a room or stir a strong conversation in today’s dangerous political climate.
Bassam and Rami now in their 60’s have carried on with their lives. McCann, a father himself, formed a deep connection with these men who gave him permission to freely create a story from their story. Shared histories have given them each an education in the everyday existence of the occupied and occupier. They use their voices to communicate and to invite solutions. McCann, an observer in a delicate zone of disputed ideologies and political histories, must navigate ethical issues and the nuanced propaganda of the historic records. As a stranger to both cultures there is potential for the author to sway the reader with selective observations. Yet, what he finds in these two fathers is a clear example of the possible ways peace is grown and harboured. In Apeirogon, McCann does not pretend to present solutions but reminds us that their experience is current enough to jog our recent memories and old enough to carry its song into past generations.
Like seasoned musicians the men repeat their story to new audiences all over the world. Always on the edge of reliving their pain they are bolstered by the work of taking something broken and building a sense of peace from within, from the ground up, step by step, piecing it back together from something blown into a thousand and one fragments.
Miles Lowry May 2021