Two fathers’ broken hearts guide them toward heroic empathy

Colum McCann deftly weaves together the true story of a Palestinian and an Israeli who each lost daughters in the conflict – and found their calling.

Courtesy of Penguin Random House
“Apeirogon” by Colum McCann, Random House, 461 pp.

Irish-American writer Colum McCann could not have known that his latest novel, “Apeirogon,” would be quite so timely. Its publication release came five days after President Donald Trump put forward his plan for peace in the Middle East, which allows for Israeli annexation of lands disputed by the Palestinians. McCann’s book calls for peace through an end to the occupation. 

“Apeirogon” has the fractured, associative quality of poetry, as much meditation as narrative. The title derives from the geometric term for “a shape with a countably infinite number of sides.” This is the daunting task the author has set himself, to explore the sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He does so through the true stories of two men, the Israeli Rami Elhanan and Palestinian Bassam Aramin, who McCann met at Narrative 4, an organization he cofounded to foster radical empathy.

McCann grounds his novel in the unlikely friendship and activism of these men, both of whom lost a daughter to the conflict, yet who have dedicated their lives to building peace. Exploring how each grew to become a powerful voice for peace, McCann situates their stories within a deft rendering of Israel’s landscape and history. The novelistic element lies in how McCann weaves together these disparate pieces and the act of imagination by which he recreates Rami’s and Bassam’s experiences.

Best known for “Let the Great World Spin,” winner of the 2009 National Book Award, McCann’s fiction is wide-ranging and international in scope. Here his style takes on a modernist ethos in the vastness of his canvas and its multiplicity of angles, like Pablo Picasso’s “Les Demoiselles d'Avignon” or James Joyce’s “Ulysses” – a rethinking of the way we experience time and subjectivity. The fragmented telling of “Apeirogon” is driven by McCann’s desire to foster understanding and ultimately, that elusive ideal: peace. Rami sports a bumper sticker that reads, “It will not be over until we talk” and Bassam reflects, “people were afraid of the enemy because they were terrified that their lives might get diluted, that they might lose themselves in the tangle of knowing each other.” 

We follow Bassam in his journey from serving a seven-year prison term to stepping onto the world stage as a proponent for peace, where he considers the merits and pitfalls of telling and retelling his daughter’s story. After his 10-year-old daughter, Abir, was shot by an Israeli soldier in the back of the head with a rubber bullet, Bassam pursues justice through the courts with painstaking persistence in search of truth and accountability from the Israeli government. Instead of retreating, he turns outward, completing a degree in Holocaust studies in England so as to understand the trauma underlying Israel’s creation. To refuse to demonize the other and conflate retribution with justice, “Apeirogon” suggests, is a heroic act. 

Readers are offered respite from the depictions of daily perils and struggles in the luminous descriptions of Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges’ visit to Jerusalem or Bassam’s trip to England where he feels the pull of exile. Philippe Petit, who plays a pivotal role in “Let the Great World Spin” with his high-wire walk between the World Trade Center’s twin towers in New York, reappears, breaking through the somber mood with a note of uncanny play. Here, he walks above Jerusalem’s Hinnom Valley, with crowds gathered below. A pigeon released from Petit’s pocket lands absurdly on his head, then on his balancing bar, then on the tightrope, before finally flapping away.

“Apeirogon” is a weighty read, yet it’s suffused with hope. Beyond the seemingly intractable problem of the Middle East, it speaks to the universal need to recognize the humanity of those who politicians would render merely the enemy. 

Elizabeth Toohey is an assistant professor of English at Queensborough Community College, CUNY and a Knight Visiting Nieman Fellow at Harvard University.

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