“Apeirogon: A Novel” by Colum McCann–Love, Loss, Conflict and Life and a Plea for Peace

McCann, Colum. , Random House, 2020.

Love, Loss, Conflict and Life and a Plea for Peace

Amos Lassen

An apeirogon is a shape with a countably infinite number of sides. It is also the name of Colum McCann’s new novel about  those living through the conflict between Palestine and Israel as told through two families whose outlooks and lives were changed when the lives of their two daughters were taken. It all began on a regular kind of day but ended with two families dealing with the grief of loss. Through sharing their stories of the loss of their daughters, they were more able to see the infinite sides to each other’s story and this led which led then to understanding and a friendship. 

The novel is based on the lives of real people, Rami Elhanan, an Israeli and his daughter, Smadar, and Bassam Aramin,  a Palestinian and his daughter, Abir. When Abir was ten years old, a rubber bullet ended her life. Smadar was thirteen. The focus here is on their fathers, how they met, and how they helped each other find some degree of peace.

Moving back and forth through time and memories, we get the story of the characters. These memories and stories differ in length and some of them come with photographs and some have few words; some are political while others offer varying perspectives. We get a view of the ways these lives were personally affected and that the journey here lead to a  beginning of a sense of personal peace. The reader gains a broader view of both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. 

Rami Elhanan had served his obligatory military term as a youth. His service had been during wartime when he had to shoot to kill. Now he just wanted to live a regular life –working at his career in graphic design and enjoy his home with his wife and four children. But that was not to be.  In 1997, Rami’s 13-year-old daughter Smadar was killed by a Palestinian suicide bomber as she was walking in Jerusalem with a friend. Rami’s initially felt hatred and wanted revenge. He remained like this for a year until a rabbi invited Rami to the Parent’s Circle (a support group for both Israeli and Palestinian parents who had lost children). Rami went reluctantly and there he first saw a Palestinian woman holding a photograph of her dead daughter. He realized that his was the first time in his life he had thought of an individual Palestinian person as a fellow human being. As he dealt with his hatred and vengeance, it disappeared and he eventually sought out the organization, Combatants for Peace, where he would meet Bassam Aramin; a Palestinian man who would teach Rami what life is like in Occupied Palestine.

Bassam grew up on the West Bank  that was controlled by Israeli security forces. The area was subject to house raids, humiliating checkpoints, and armed soldiers on patrol. Bassam and his friends liked to raise the Palestinian flag at their school even though it was outlawed and when soldiers would come to take it down, they would throw rocks and run away. As a teen, Bassam and his friends found some grenades, and threw them at a convoy causing him to be labelled as a  terrorist and sentenced to prison for seven years when he was just seventeen. In prison, Bassam became quite radical, but while watching a documentary on the Holocaust, he found himself thinking of the Jewish people as fellow human beings for the first time in his life. When released from prison, he  cofounded Combatants for Peace, and two years after meeting Rami for the first time, Bassam also became a member of an organization that no one wants to join, the Parents Circle,  when his own ten-year-old daughter, Abir, was shot in the back of the skull with a rubber bullet that was fired by an eighteen-year-old Israeli soldier from the back of an armored jeep while Abir was buying candy for herself and her sister. The two fathers, Rami and Bassam, suddenly became Joined forever in grief. Now they meet meet times a week and are as close as brothers.

Writer McCann goes into the struggles of two fathers left mourning their young daughters who are determined to prevent these tragedies from happening again and again and again… The depiction of violence here is explicit and without compassion. The stories are complex but the reward for reading this is great— a better understanding of what is going on in the Middle East.

Even though Rami and Bassam had been raised to hate one another,  when they learn of each other’s stories, they recognize the loss it connects them. Together they attempt to use their grief as a weapon for peace start to permeate what has for generations seemed an impermeable conflict. McCann met the real Bassam and Rami on a trip with the non-profit organization Narrative 4 and he was moved by their willingness to share their stories with the world. They felt that if through their hope they could see themselves in one another, perhaps others could the same.
 
With their blessing, McCann began to write and uses real-life stories to begin another story— one that “crosses centuries and continents, stitching together time, art, history, nature, and politics in a tale both heartbreaking and hopeful. The result is an ambitious novel, crafted out of a universe of fictional and nonfictional material, with these fathers’ moving story at its heart.”

Over the course of the day, these two men’s lives intertwine as they attempt to use their grief as a weapon for peace. Through telling the men’s stories via short vignettes, McCann goes from the present to the past, sharing the lives of these men, the lives of their daughters, and their experiences.  McCann writes with emotional accuracy, sensitivity and beauty. I often laughed and wept on the same page.

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