By Roberta Silman
Although some of Apeirogon is painful, this novel can inspire you to think differently and even to act, which is surely welcome after this horrible year in which we have all felt so helpless.
Apeirogon by Colum McCann. Random House, 463 pages, $28.
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In his 2015 story collection, Thirteen Ways of Looking Colum McCann wrote a remarkable story called “Sh’khol” which I am surprised is not known more widely. I got that collection because I had loved Transatlantic even more than his best known book, Let The Great World Spin. But somehow I missed Apeirogon when it was published in February of this year, just at the beginning of the health crisis we have now endured for almost 10 months. So I am grateful to an old friend who told me about it and sent me links to talks with Colum and his protagonists Rami and Bassam. These three men found such a special place in my heart that I will call them all by their first names in this review and hope you will click on the above link to the webinar.
How a novel comes into existence is often mysterious and writers run the risk of sounding a bit fey when trying to describe how they make the decision to devote themselves — sometimes for years — to characters that they have made up. Some, like Donald Barthelme, insist that the source is dreams; others talk about characters knocking desperately on the doors of their brains (as if our brains are safe in little houses in our heads); and still others talk about getting fictional material from an obscure incident in real life or something they have read in the newspapers — Tolstoy famously said he began Anna Karenina after reading about a woman in a train accident. Dreiser also claimed a newspaper source for his masterpiece An American Tragedy. Dickens knew of an endless law case which propelled him to write his amazing Bleak House. And when John Steinbeck witnessed the devastation of the country he loved, he was propelled to write Grapes of Wrath. The variations are endless.
What is rare is a writer meeting his characters first, falling in love with their stories and then shaping those stories into a first-class novel. Yet that is what has happened here. Through Narrative 4, a global storytelling organization Colum founded, he was introduced to Bassam and Rami. Five years later we have Apeirogon, a superb work of art which, actually, now that I am connecting the dots, can be traced back to “Sh’khol,” a Hebrew word that is difficult to translate. The closest Colum could come in English is “bereaved” when he describes that story’s protagonist translating a story written by an Arab Israeli about a couple who had lost their two children. And it is that shocking loss which has drawn him to the two men in Apeirogon.
How do you describe lives blown apart, never to be the same, yet still not robbed of meaning? How do you bring to life two fathers who have lost their daughters to violence yet continue to live in places filled with danger and steadfastly refuse to succumb to anger and hate? That is the task Colum has set for himself, a daunting task but one that he knows well because he has written about The Troubles in his native country, Ireland. (For the record, he is now an American citizen who lives in Manhattan with his wife and children and teaches at Hunter College, although he is under a cloud because of an accusation of sexual assault off-campus in 2014. He is on leave from Hunter until 2022.) Its form is based on its title; an apeirogon is from the Greek and defined as a polygon with infinite sides. In this Apeirogon there are 1001 sections and throughout there is an awareness of this book’s roots in The Arabian Nights, which I have always loved, especially in the translation by Husein Hadawy, whom I knew when he was a graduate student at Cornell and I was an undergraduate. Just as in that great classic, you have the feeling while reading Apeirogon that these stories are a matter of life and death.
The first 1- 500 sections build to Rami’s story, then there is 1001, literally the lynchpin of the book, which I will give it in its entirety below, and then the next 500 beginning with Bassam’s story and going back to 1. In these tales, sometimes no more than snippets, are all sorts of what at first seem unrelated facts and stories and memories and vignettes about bird migrations, Sir Francis Burton, the science of falconry, politics in the Middle East, polio, Francois Mitterand, the importance of water in all our lives and countries, the history of the families of these two men, and details about the short lives of the two children who were killed — Rami’s daughter Smadar and Bassam’s daughter Abir. There is also material about Einstein and Freud, weaponry (who knew that there was actually a man named Henry Shrapnel?), some tenets of the Torah and Qur’an, and, perhaps most interesting, a full account of how Bassam educated himself while he was in prison. There are also a number of other subjects, as well as occasional photographs and illustrations. Some sections are only a line or two long, others as much as a few pages, but all somehow connected to the tragic tales of these two men, one of whom — Rami — has a sticker on his motorcycle that reads “It will not be over until we talk.”
And that is what Bassam and Rami, who are as close as brothers, do. As members of a club no one would ever want to belong to, they go around the world under the auspices of the Parents Circle-Families Forum, “a grassroots organization of Palestinian and Israeli families who have lost immediate family members due to the conflict. The PCFF operates under the principle that a process of reconciliation is a prerequisite for achieving a sustained peace.” That is a direct quotation from the website about their mission. Bassam and Rami are sometimes welcomed, sometimes not. But they are determined to channel their grief and anger into something that encourages hope and and a future; that is what makes them and their families so remarkable and why Colum was so attracted to them, not only for their stories, but for themselves. And why, as he got to know them better and better, he realized that the Hebrew notion of tikkun olam, that it is our obligation to repair the world, is real and being enacted before our very eyes.
I am an American Jewish woman who can remember when Israel came into existence and whose three aunts and an uncle emigrated from Lithuania to Palestine in the ’30s and who has very mixed feelings about the present Israeli government. I am also an admirer of David Grossman and other Israeli writers who are doves in the present conflict, and I was riveted by this book. And, although I have supported organizations that try to form a bridge between the Palestinians and the Israelis, I feel that Apeirogon is unique. It has the potential to make the various sides see and listen in a way they never have before. Because you feel what these characters feel, understand their doubts and exhaustion and everlasting grief, and you also know their profound desire for a future that is open and free, not stuck forever, as the cynics about the Middle East keep insisting. Thus, as Colum writes, the reader becomes a participant in the story. Each detail asserts its own meaning depending who you are and what your interests are, but in the end you have somehow done more than just read this book. You have gathered it into the fabric of your life. So, although some of Apeirogon is painful, this novel can inspire you to think differently and even to act, which is surely welcome after this horrible year in which we have all felt so helpless.
I might also add that Apeirogon’s overriding theme is the difficult one of forgiveness, which is what I was exploring in my own latest novel, Secrets and Shadows, and which, in the end, may be the only way to sustain us as we continue to live in a world filled with so much conflict. But forgiveness requires trust, which is not easy to attain, especially among people who have been hurt beyond repair. That is why Apeirogon is so important.
In thinking about the impact of this singular work, I am reminded of Faulkner’s Nobel Speech in 1950 in which he said, “I feel that this award was not made to me as a man, but to my work — a life’s work in the agony and sweat of the human spirit, not for glory and least of all for profit, but to create out of the materials of the human spirit something which did not exist before.” Although in his personal life Faulkner was slow to recognize the evils of slavery and segregation, he left us with amazing works that confront race in America and are still relevant today. Colum has also looked at a seemingly unsolvable situation and written a work that both in substance and form has never “existed before” and that shows a path forward, filled with the “agony and sweat of the human spirit.” So it seems fitting to end this review with his own words — that wonderful sentence that comprises Section 1001 — which will, I hope, entice you to read this novel and give it the audience it deserves:
Once upon a time, and not so long ago, and not so far away, Rami Elhanan, an Israeli, a Jew, a graphic artist, husband of Nurit, father of Elik and Guy and Yigal, father too of the late Smadar, traveled on his motorbike from the suburbs of Jerusalem to the Cremisan monastery in the mainly Christian town of Beit Jala, near Bethlehem, in the Judean hills, to meet with Bassam Aramin, a Palestinian, a Muslim, a father of Araab and Areen and Muhammad and Ahmed and Hiba, father too of the late Abir, ten years old, shot dead by an unnamed Israeli border guard in East Jerusalem, almost a decade after Rami’s daughter, Smadar, two weeks away from fourteen, was killed in the western part of the city by three Palestinian suicide bombers, Bashar Sawalha, Youssef Shouli, and Tawfiq Yassine, from the village of Assira al-Shamaliya near Nablus in the West Bank, a place of intrigue to the listeners gathered in the redbrick monastery perched on the hillside, in the Mountains of the Beloved, by the terraced vineyard, in the shadow of the Wall, having come as far apart as Belfast and Kyushu, Paris and North Carolina, Santiago and Brooklyn, Copenhagen and Terezín, on an ordinary day at the end of October, foggy, tinged with cold, to listen to the stories of Bassam and Rami, and to find within their stories another story, a song of songs, discovering themselves—you and me—in the stone-tiled chapel where we sit for hours, eager, hopeless, buoyed, confused, cynical, complicit, silent, our memories imploding, our synapses skipping, in the gathering dark, remembering, while listening, all of those stories that are yet to be told.
Roberta Silman is the author of four novels, a short story collection and two children’s books. Her new novel, Secrets and Shadows (Arts Fuse review), is in its second printing and is available on Amazon and at Campden Hill Books. It was chosen as one of the best Indie Books of 2018 by Kirkus. A recipient of Fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts, she has reviewed for the New York Times and Boston Globe, and writes regularly for the Arts Fuse. More about her can be found at robertasilman.com and she can also be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.