Colum McCann, Apeirogon (Random House 2020)
Apeirogon is not a meal but a table littered with ingredients: a paw of garlic, a frozen lamb shank, two potatoes, a big knob of celeriac, three peas. (Dwight Garner in the New York Times)
It’s a masterpiece, a novel that will change the world, and you don’t hear that very often. (Alex Preston in The Guardian)
I tend to agree with both critics. On the one hand, by design, Apeirogon is made up of numbered fragments, ranging from just a few words to several pages, but most a single paragraph. It takes a while to get one’s bearings, and once you’ve got them you might still be irritated by fragments like the one that explains why the sugar dextrose got its name, or the many that describe bird life. On the other hand, the central story is a compelling account of two men, an Israeli and a Palestinian, whose young daughters were killed, one by a suicide bomber and the other by a callous exercise of state-sanctioned violence, who now travel the world telling their stories and arguing for peace between Israel and Palestine. They are real men, members of real organisations (Combatants for Peace and Parents Circle – Families Forum) that promote this form of activism.
The irritation almost got the upper hand for me in the early pages. It’s always a bad sign when I slip into proofreader mode, and that happened here when some birds are ‘held by their feet over a vat of pure Armagnac, dipped head first and drowned alive’. My mental blue pencil scribbled in the margin: ‘Delete “alive”. If something is drowned, by definition it’s alive before dipping.’ Happily, apart from one section that simply lists without comment 36 species of birds that are seen over the West Bank (a list that’s repeated in the final sections), irritation soon gave way to full engagement.
A structure emerges. First, there are 500 fragments numbered in ascending order, in which the Israeli man, Rami Elhanan, rides a motorbike to a gathering in an ancient monastery in the Left Bank, culminating in a version of his ‘talk’: his life story, the murder of his daughter, his peace advocacy. At the centre is a fragment numbered 1001, a single, beautifully Proustian sentence that describes the location, purpose and participants of the gathering, with an implicit descriptionj of the nature of the book we are reading. The audience in the monastery, ‘you and me’,
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.(Page 229)
A second fragment 500 follows, in which the Palestinian man, Bassam Aramin, gives his talk, and we count down back to 1, as Bassam drives home to where his wife is waiting for him.
That’s the underlying structure. But a reader opening the book at random would mostly be hard pressed to tell where they were along that arc if not for the identifying numbers. The stories of the deaths of both girls and their aftermaths are told in fragments throughout both parts. The stories of their parents lives and post-tragedy activism likewise. The frustrating and often humiliating experience of passing through an Israeli checkpoint. The history of Combatants for Peace and the Parents Circle, as well as both men’s tentative first joining them. And in what I now take to be an enactment of a listener’s mind – synapses skipping, remembering ‘all of those stories’ – there are shiny fragments: François Mitterand’s last meal, observations of bird life, mathematical curiosities, a performance of Verdi’s Requiem in the Nazi camp in Theresienstadt, facts about birdlife, Christopher Costigan’s ill-fated exploration of the Dead Sea, the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, Philippe Petit’s highwire walk over Jerusalem in 1987, Peter Brook’s performances of The Conference of Birds in Saharan villages … the list could go on, and on. There are two Australian connections: an Australian tourist set fire to the Al-Aqsa mosque in 1969, and an Australian artist, Janet Venn-Brown, was effectively widowed by Mossad agents’ assassination in 1972 of Palestinian poet and translator Wael Zuaiter. [Added 5 September 2021: Janet Venn-Brown died in Sydney in August this year.]
An apeirogon is a polygon with a countably infinite number of sides. I don’t even know what that means. I suppose as a title for this book it suggests the futility of trying to understand the situation in Israel and Palestine as simply two-sided, though the book isn’t so much an infinite sided shape as a piling up of fragments along a barely discernible straight line. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
Why not just tell the story straight? It’s a question I asked, especially when I got irritated – as by the short explanation of how the sugar dextrose got its name. I do think it works, this piling up of detail, ranging from incidents immediately relevant to the main story, to things the writer has retrieved from his personal rabbit-holes. At least, I was completely absorbed. I’d heard of Bassam Aramin and Rami Elhanan, now I feel that I know about them, have a better grasp of what they’re up against and what they are doing, and am invested in it. So when the author’s acknowledgements end with contact details of organisations one can send contributions to, it feels as if it’s anticipating the reader’s desire rather than tacking on a plea for funds.
Also, apart from those birds who are drowned alive, it’s beautifully written.