KCNY5N General view, Hebron, Holy Land, (i.e. West Bank) LCCN2002724987

Colum McCann's Apeirogon sheds imaginative light on a seemingly endless conflict

Israel-Palestine has come to be defined by platitudes. Can fiction succeed where journalism has failed?
April 1, 2020

I really did not want to like this book. So much has been written on Israel-Palestine—histories, memoirs, essays, fiction and indeed peace plans—and so very little of it is original. So at first, I was not especially enthused by this much-hyped novel by the veteran Irish author Colum McCann, who has confessed that he knew next to nothing about the region before he began his latest project.

This interminable conflict causes real pain for those directly affected, but the way it is usually viewed by outsiders can be summed up in one simplistic image: a Palestinian woman in a hijab walking past an ultra-orthodox Jewish man, perhaps against the backdrop of the Temple Mount. You can amplify this cliché across millions of words in dozens of languages. Maybe it’s because it has become such an enduringly fashionable issue—the woke left is full of people who wear keffiyehs but couldn’t find Palestine on a map—but that is about as insightful as much of the coverage gets.

Israel-Palestine has come to be defined by platitudes: Biblical tribalism, modern-day colonialism, the shadow of the Holocaust, the sweep of history. The public demand them, and we in the media oblige. (Full disclosure: in two decades covering this story, I too have written the obligatory Christmas-in-Bethlehem story and introduced radio pieces with the haunting sound of the muezzin’s call to prayer in occupied East Jerusalem.)

If journalists struggle to push past these banalities can artists come up with anything more insightful? Aperiogon—the title means “a shape with a countably infinite number of sides”—takes a simple story as a way in. McCann’s book tracks the friendship between Rami Elhanan, an Israeli who lost his teenage daughter Smadar in a suicide bombing in 1997, and Bassam Aramin, whose daughter Abir died after being shot in the head with a rubber bullet by an Israeli Defence Force soldier 10 years later. Although the book’s cover clearly signposts that this is a novel, these men are real individuals whose peace campaigning is well known. McCann has talked extensively to both, and they are apparently happy for him to tell their stories.

*** I prepared myself for the usual tales of innocence shattered, fates intertwined and opportunities squandered. And indeed I found myself grimacing at the all-too-obvious imagery of birds captured in a net on a West Bank hillside: “They were tangled together side by side, their feet caught in a single strand, their wings frantic against the filaments, so they appeared at first to be just one oddly shaped bird.” Just like Israelis and Palestinians! And I winced when I came across the first mention of the Holocaust on page 19, with a reference to the Theresienstadt concentration camp.

But before long my cynicism had been worn away sufficiently for me to realise that something rather wonderful was happening. This is a work of fiction that rings utterly true. McCann has chosen an ambitious format of mini-chapters that can be as short as a sentence or a lone image. We wander through myriad events, histories, stories and pictures. The novel circles around Elhanan and Aramin’s respective bereavements, described in minute detail, and their own past lives, as though their destinies are on an inevitable trajectory towards their daughters’ deaths.

Born near Hebron in the West Bank, Aramin is jailed aged 17 for throwing a grenade at Israeli soldiers and receives a seven-year prison sentence. Behind bars, he is abused, beaten and humiliated; but he also learns Hebrew and gains an insight into the Israeli experience.

Jerusalemite Elhanan serves in the Israeli army and fights in the Yom Kippur War; he becomes a graphic designer and has a family. Through all this time, he says, “the Arabs were just a thing to me, remote and abstract and meaningless… if they were anything other than objects, they were objects to be feared, because if you didn’t fear them they would become real people. And we didn’t want them to become real people, we couldn’t handle that.”

They first meet in 2005, through the Combatants for Peace group, an ongoing initiative that brings together former participants in the conflict to campaign for an end to violence. After the fathers lose their daughters, they join the Bereaved Families Forum. Of all the many charities and encounter groups that froth along the edges of this conflict—Ukuleles for Peace is one that sticks in my mind—these two really are worthy of respect. The members talk both to each other and to outside audiences about their experiences as both a therapeutic tool and a force for social change. They are determined that reconciliation is possible.

Elhanan and Aramin tell and retell their stories endlessly, meeting in hotel conference rooms, school auditoriums, community centres, both in the Middle East and further afield.

“It is always the same story, heard differently in each place… the finite words on an infinite plane,” McCann tells us. Chapter 91 reads: “It sometimes surprised Rami that he could reach so far inside he could discover new ways of saying the same thing. He was, he knew, making Smadar continually present. It slid something sharp and burning into his rib cage, pried him even further open. Once or twice, at the lectures, he looked across to see the surprise on Bassam’s face, as if the new phrase has just cut him open too.”

*** It turns out that McCann’s near-total ignorance about the conflict was a blessing in writing this book. His approach is fresh, humble and unburdened with preconceptions. There’s a forensic attention to detail that adds to this sense of intimacy. Somehow, McCann captures the physical and social geography of various parts of Israel and the West Bank; he can enumerate the names for God found in the Koran as well as the Jewish tradition that claims each pomegranate has exactly 613 seeds, the same as the number of religious commandments.

This is supposed to be a mingling of fact and fiction, but I couldn’t tell where one ends and the other begins. This might seem a strange approach to writing about Israel-Palestine, where the demand for balance has been fetishised by both sides and accusations of bias are axiomatic. This quagmire means that there are few empirical facts to agree on, let alone who is right and who is wrong. Instead, McCann captures imaginative truth.

The book’s 1,001 mini-chapters are an allusion to the Arabian Nights tales, a running theme throughout. Elhanan reads the book to Smadar as a child; later we are told that a volume was in the pocket of a Palestinian poet when he was assassinated by Mossad (the 13th bullet “passed right through the Tale of the Hunchback, Smadar’s favourite.”)

In the book, the Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges, in a visit to the Holy Land, tells a Jerusalem audience that the Nights was “so vast and inexhaustible that it was not even necessary to have read it since it was already an intricate part of humanity’s unconscious memory.” With stories gathered at different times and places—from Baghdad to Damascus, Egypt and Tibet—the book is like an “endless cathedral, a widening mosque, a random everywhere.” Or a shape with a countably infinite number of sides.

Just as with the Nights, though, Apeirogon’s interconnectedness can become a little exhausting. The reader needs a measure of patience for a style that hops between migratory birds to the natsch thistles that might have made up Jesus’s crown of thorns, and Philippe Petit’s World Trade Centre high-wire walk, the subject of a previous McCann book. The symbolism is occasionally clunky. McCann describes the performance of John Cage’s experimental composition As Slow as Possible, in which every movement lasts about 71 years with the music due to end in the year 2640. Maybe the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will be solved by then.

But all this circumnavigating actually makes the heart of the story—the extreme intimacy of bereavement—easier to confront. So much of what is written about this corner of the world insists on exceptionalism. All parties see themselves as uniquely maligned, or oppressed, or threatened in a way unprecedented through history. McCann is at pains to emphasise that grief-stricken people who wander in the pages of his book are absolutely ordinary and universal.

*** His novel comes at a time when it has become less vogueish (outside parts of the European left) to presume that this single conflict is behind all of the woes in the Middle East. The events of the 2011 Arab Spring showed that there were other problems in the region that had little to do with the status of Jerusalem. That recognition was overdue, but it has eased some of the old international pressure to secure a deal.

Donald Trump’s “Deal of the Century,” which envisages Israeli annexation and a piecemeal, strangled sovereignty for remnants of Palestine, is clearly yet another dead-end peace process.

In Israel and Palestine talk of coexistence has become laughably niche. Support for the two-state solution was once consistently high on both sides, even during the bloody years of the second intifada. Now it has become perhaps the most hollow cliché of all. As the results of the most recent election (of three in the last 12 months) in Israel has illustrated, liberal Zionism is comatose. Palestinians have lost patience too. A February poll by the Palestinian Centre for Policy and Survey Research showed that less than 40 per cent of respondents supported a two-state solution, the lowest figure since the Oslo Accords cemented the concept in the early 1990s.

So there is no longer any kind of consensus destination for this conflict, or what a former Palestinian diplomat to the UK liked to describe as “an outcome equally unacceptable to both sides.” In this context, a work of fiction centred on reconciliation is a brave enterprise. But somehow McCann makes it work—adding rare layers of precious nuance. There are very few books being published right now about Israel-Palestine that are worth reading; but this is one of them.

Colum McCann's Apeirogon (£18.99) is published by Bloomsbury