Colum McCann Apeirogon

During the first decade of this century, I produced and was the host of a Canadian one-hour television show called Israel Today. Of the 26 shows we made each year, 16-18 were shot in Israel. During the 2003-04 TV season we broadcast a show featuring Yitzhak Frankenthal. His 19-year-old son, Arik, was kidnapped and murdered in Gaza in 1995 when he was a soldier in the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF). In 1995, Yitzhak Frankenthal founded Parents Circle – Families Forum for Israeli parents who had lost children in the conflict. By 1998, Parents Circle initiated Dialogue Encounters with Palestinian parents and the organization became a bi-national one that brought together the bereaved parents, both Israeli and Palestinian, who had lost children in the conflict. The organization arranged meetings between the two groups to share stories and to use their shared sorrow to advance reconciliation and peace. The organization also supports projects to advance that objective.

A number of documentaries were produced about those encounters. One was Within the Eye of the Storm (2011). It told the story of the journey of reconciliation of Bassam Aramin and Rami Elhanan, both members of the Parents Circle. Both had lost daughters in the conflict depicted in moving painful detail in the novel. The book, however, does not trace the development of the relationship between the two men in any linear fashion. Rather, it is like a circle, no, rather a spiral that goes in and out of their relationship over the years.

On p. 417, McCann defined an apeirogon as “a shape with a countably infinite number of sides” from the Greek, apeiron, to be boundless, to be endless, to which is added the Indo-European root of per: to try, to risk.

As a whole, an apeirogon approaches the shape of a circle, but a magnified view of small pieces appears to be a straight line. One can finally arrive at any point within the whole. Anywhere is reachable. Anything is possible, even the seemingly impossible. At the same time, one can arrive anywhere within an apeirogon and the entirety of the shape is complicit with the journey, even that which has not yet been imagined.

A wall separates most of the West Bank from Israel proper. Further, Rami Elahan, an Israeli, and Bassam Aramin, a Palestinian, are supposed to travel on separate roads in the West Bank much of the time, but they often take the same road when travelling to a meeting together in Beit Jala. Smadar and Abir, their respective daughters, never met, but their deaths, truly tragic deaths, in the conflict eventually brought Rami and Bassam together to reach across and through the walls built to sustain and hold back their common grief.

Per refers to risk. What a risky and original form McCann gives to the novel in spectacular, splendiferous prose intermixed with paragraphs of lists, of long lists. For example, suddenly we encounter out of the blue the name, “Solitaire,” and then a list of 36 other names for the same card game. McCann does not have to spell it out. Its all there. Solitaire is a card game generally played alone. As much as one can share one’s grief, as much as one can learn to love one’s enemy, in the end you are alone with that pain. You are alone facing your future with the weight of that past. Sharing the grief lessens the pain but never eliminates it. But obsession with that solitary pain leads to the opposite of reconciliation.

There are over a thousand variations of the game, solitaire. Within any one game, solitaire does not quite have an infinite number of variations. However, there are far more than I can count. You can play with the cards that fate has dealt you. The tableau is not one of war against another player but a struggle to live oneself, to win with the cards fate has served up to you.

In solitaire, after you shuffle, you lay down seven cards in a row with the first one on the left face up and the rest face down. Then on top of the face down cards, lay down six in a row with the first face up covering the previous first face down card. You repeat this a total of seven times from left to right until each of the piles, varying from one to seven cards, has one face card up.

In descending order of value, red cards go on black and black on red, sixes on sevens, twos on threes and jacks on queens. If there is a blank space, a king may go there. If there is an ace, it is put in a row above the tableau. When you exhaust all possibilities with the deck as laid out, you begin to play the cards you have left in your hand. The ultimate goal is to separate the deck into four ascending piles above the tableau with an ace of each suit at the bottom and the remaining members of the suit on top in ascending order. Thus, the game is split between putting opposing cards, the bottom dominant and the one on top a lower card, in the main tableau and the cards is four separate suits in a new row in ascending order. In the main tableau, lower is upper and upper is lower.  The ultimate path entails eliminating the initial tableau of seven piles and creating four piles of the same family with the highest card, the king, on top.

Parents Circle is an effort to reverse this propensity to collect cards in separate tribes or suits. The slogan could be drawn from E.M. Forster’s Howards End, namely “Only connect.” This novel is a very original effort to capture in prose the dynamic of this effort to overcome the propensity towards the solitary and the separation into tribes in an imagined universe, which has a very real complement, and to develop links and threads of a reconciled world of peace. It is, by definition, utopian, but what is depicted is very real and the very opposite of a utopia. Instead of turning the imagined world into our real world, the novel makes the very original effort of trying to make the worldview it depicts as real as possible while avoiding the least hint of propaganda. Instead of an intractable conflict Bassam and Rami demonstrate by their lives that the conflict can be managed and overcome on an interpersonal level.

Private and public life are interwoven and not segregated. History as the remembrance of things past always become part of the present moment so time must be connected as well as dots in space. The effort results, not in homogeneity, not even in an alliance of differences, but in a pastiche made up of small digestible pieces. Rami Elahan is an Israeli. Bassam Aramin is a Palestinian. Rami Elahan is a religious Jew. Bassam Aramin is a religious Muslim. They truly learn not simply to tolerate one another, not simply to live side by side, but to love one another and make the other an intimate part of their own lives.

The novel by dwelling in the minutiae of both men’s lives attains a sweep of epic proportions. Instead of a vision of transcending the conflict, the conflict is portrayed in all its immediacy and horror as the effort to harmonize while it delivers pin pricks into the divisions. Walls, roads, rituals and emotional barriers force on the two men an environment of division and separation which invades every minute of their daily lives, but also challenges them to surmount those barriers. In September of each year, Parents Circle puts on a Blood Relations Project sponsored by Satchi and Satchi where both Israelis and Palestinians donate blood collected by natural type and not by nationality. The blood is used to save lives of both Palestinians and Israelis. “Can you hurt someone whose blood runs through your veins?”

In his historic 2011 Middle east speech, Barack Obama said that, “We see that spirit in the Israeli father whose son was killed by Hamas, who helped start an organization that brought together Israelis and Palestinians who had lost loved ones. That father said, ‘I gradually realized that the only hope for progress was to recognize the face of the conflict.’” For the conflict has a face. It has many faces, faces that are brought together so that they can recognize one another as individuals with passions and pains, with collective losses and collective visions of the future.

Bassam Aramin enters the story as a teenage rock thrower, a terrorist, who, in his seven-year prison term evolved into both a Fatah leader and a student of the Holocaust, studies which he subsequently pursued as a graduate student after he was released from prison. For understanding the other and meeting the other face to face requires knowing the collective past of the other that haunts the present. The novel is not about the numerous awards and public recognition the international community has bestowed on Parents Circle but, rather, the interpersonal recognition that one Israeli and one Palestinian give one another as their separate histories of personal and collective pain are exposed to the light of day.

Gideon Moshe Sa’ar, an Israeli Likud Education Minister and Minister of the Interior between 2003 and 2014, a period during which most of the events in the novel take place, banned the activities of Parents Circle from the Israeli school system because, “The education system supports messages of peace, conciliation and dialogue, and promotes pluralistic discourse, but there is no room for comparison between terror victims and terrorists.” The novel shows that terrorists and Israeli soldiers can both give birth to victims. By touching one another through their shared pain, they can transcend military self-defence and terrorism to forge a brotherhood and sisterhood of appreciation and genuine love. With McCann’s pen, the fixidity of nouns become the dynamism of verbs as birds “scissor” their way across the skies of Israel in an annual migration between Europe and Africa of millions of these beautiful flying creatures.

The novel is a masterpiece that touches the spirit as few novels can and do, transcending binaries and the division of the cards into suits.  It does not offer the truth but very many truths in an atmosphere of confusion and ambiguity. It serves up intelligent analysis alongside compassion not simply as a reflection of the people portrayed but as itself an instrument of reconciliation and peace. Grief is on display but it is never exploited.

The book is divided, not into an infinite number of straight lines, but into a thousand and one dark nights of the soul, each with its own very brief chapter of a paragraph or of several pages. The book is made up of a shattered Apeirogon with the novel performing the magic of knitting together very disparate pieces like the candy bracelet that appears and reappears throughout the novel. Apeirogon is about per, about risk, the risk of the high wire acrobat, the Frenchman Phillippe Petit, who once traversed a high wire strung between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York and, in the novel as well as in real life, when he crossed the longest tightrope ever strung on an incline between West and East Jerusalem across the Valley of Hinom, the Ben Hinom Wadi to Mount Zion, in 1987 just before the First Intifada erupted. The stunt was called, “Walking the Harp: A Bridge for Peace.” The soaring ambition of Petit and of the birds who traverse the landscape is what McCann performs with the novel. It does not propel itself forward like an average novel but pauses and recovers its balance. What is lacks in momentum it more than makes up for in moments of deep feeling.

High wire acts are insufficient. Bassam’s and Rami’s efforts are very grounded and far less sensational. What they do not do is offer a thrill but rather a lesson in patience and sensitivity. The novel is not given to excessive moralizing. There is not one pithy maxim like Forster’s “Only connect” that I can remember. Without sententiousness, the novel nevertheless is a moral force of its own in true homage to the efforts of the two main protagonists of the noel.

I had finished this review when one of my readers sent me his own review of the novel not knowing that I had just written a review. With his permission, I have added that review as an appendix.

Michael Greenstein

After reading the 1,001 sections of Apeirogon, I find that the easiest way of entering the novel is at its very centre, where the stories of Israeli Rami Elhanan and Palestinian Bassam Aramin coexist in a specific symmetry. Despite the juxtaposition of their lives and the murder of their daughters in the two 500 sections, this central reading is not necessarily the only way of approaching Apeirogon, a novel where fact and fiction interweave at the margins to challenge any central vision. The author of Let the Great World Spin (2009), Colum McCann masterfully spins history, structure, and meaning.

In his “Acknowledgments,” McCann acknowledges that this is “a hybrid novel with invention at its core.” His hybrid novel may be approached from a number of different angles and levels. If one balances the “Acknowledgments” with the “Author’s Note” that precedes the narrative, then its hybrid nature links with Rilke’s image of “widening circles that reach out across the entire expanse.” Moving in from these margins, McCann begins with “The hills of Jerusalem are a bath of fog” and ends with “The hills of Jericho are a bath of dark” (457). The parallels between Jerusalem and Jericho are blurred by the fog of war; the bath metaphor has the potential to cleanse, but the reality of the region is far bleaker. McCann attempts to release what has been locked in among the hills.

Rami motorbikes through the fog, shifts gears, and observes a flock of birds: “Two answers for one swerve” – – a phrase that captures the essence of hybrid Apeirogon, which is full of swerves, each one with its set of answers. As characters travel, birds fly, their peripheral wings offering one view of stages in the theatre of war, their bird’s-eye perspective offering another, above the hybrid fray. Half a billion birds migrate along the Middle Eastern superhighway, their “ancient ancestry” highlighting the claims of “European rollers, Arabian babblers,” Israeli and Palestinian historical narratives. Birds cover the cover of Apeirogon in a pattern of countably infinite numbers from dust jacket to fly leaf. Hold section 1001, the spine of the book, a single sentence that tells the story while the surrounding pages flap. Inside the Cremisan monastery where characters pursue peace, the reader discovers “within their stories another story,” particular and universal.

The 1001 sections vary in length and subject matter, but each is connected to the overall structure. Consider the transition from birds to slingshot: in section 3, birds are targets of young stone throwers, and section 4 launches into the history of the ancient sling, which is the “size of an eye-patch.” Invoking an eye, the author reminds us of the centrality of perception in conflict. Israel may be seen as David in comparison to the larger Arabic Goliath throughout the Middle East; on the other hand, with its nuclear power it may be considered a Goliath compared to its neighbours. Section 5 begins at the edges of battle, a reminder of the importance of edges, margins, and peripheral vision encroaching on meaning. Children shoot turtle doves and quails that are blinded, force fed, and baked in clay ovens.

Innocently victimized birds segue to the ritual of Francois Mitterrand devouring ortolans eight days before his death. If the ortolan represents the “soul of France,” then what are we to make of the French soul with this decadent ritual? On the one hand, Mitterrand declares that “the only interesting thing is to live,” and afterwards he fasts for eight and a half days until he dies; on the other hand, he covers his head with a napkin to inhale the aroma and to hide the act from the eyes of God. “He picked up the songbirds and ate them whole: the succulent flesh, the fat, the bitter entrails, the wings, the tendons, the liver, the kidney, the warm heart, the feet, the many head ones crunching in his teeth”(6). McCann’s anatomization of the scene captures the philosophies of carpe diem and mea culpa – – the guilty gluttony of haute cuisine. This evisceration testifies to the victims of suicide bombings.

Less a stream of consciousness or flight of fancy than a tissue of connectivity, McCann’s ornithological technique segues to a white blimp rising over Jerusalem.
The airship, nicknamed Fat Boy Two, surveys every single licence plate on the highway, including Rami’s yellow one. Blimp, drone, or panopticon points to the overarching visual apparatus of Apeirogon where each of the 1001 sections is linked. The camera work is carefully calibrated in geometrical patterns. Consider, for example, “amicable numbers”: these recur in sections 220 in the first and second halves of the hybrid. Moreover, the number 220 is itself a rare example of an amicable number esteemed by mathematicians. The only other amicable number is 284, and sections 284 in the book are marked by blank squares that fold over the pages. Edges or margins delineate blank spaces. Amicable numbers suggest the amicable relationship between Rami and Bassam, as well as the proper divisors which are somehow meant to add up.

“As if those different things of which they are compressed can somehow recognize one another”(98). Mutual recognition is not just between Israeli and Palestinian causes, but also between the reader and the situation in the text. Prison guard Hertzl retrieves Bassam’s badge 220-284 and hangs it in his office in the Mathematics Department at the Hebrew University where he works on “harmonic integration,” a badge of McCann’s writing.

Some of the 1001 sections consist of only one line. “Apeirogon: a shape with a countably infinite number of sides” (82). Yet section 181 is immediately echoed and expanded in 182: “Countably infinite being the simplest form of infinity,” and again in section 417. Further elaboration of the title appears in the second half: “From the Greek, apeiron: to be boundless, to be endless. Alongside the Indo-European root of per: to try, to risk …. an apeirogon approaches the shape of a circle …. Anything is possible, even the seemingly impossible.” (417). This complex structure includes Philip Glass’s experimental opera Einstein on the Beach (397), as well as John Cage’s musical project, As Slow as Possible (375). Philippe Petit makes a cameo appearance, crossing the great divide of the Hinnom Valley (150); similarly, McCann’s high-wire act connects Israeli and Palestinian sides.

“Ramifications” (107) extends Rami’s name, but more accurately derives from the Latin root for branch. Olive branches abound in Apeirogon, testing borders and boundaries, shades and shapes. Borges, Rushdie, and countable others migrate across McCann’s aviary. “The rim of a tightening lung” is another refrain that focuses on the importance of perimeters in the act of reading, and the pain of all pandemics.

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