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Colum McCann’s Apeirogon: an ambitious work of “documentary fiction”

This novel based in fact spans the divide of the Arab-Israeli conflict.

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The bird world’s second busiest superhighway charts a course over Israel’s West Bank. Every spring, 500 million birds representing 400 species migrate north from Africa to Europe. Every autumn they return the same way: nightjars and sparrows, owls and gulls, bee-eaters and flamingos, some birds forming “long vees of honking intent”, others riding as “sole travellers skimming low over the grass”, according to Colum McCann.

The sheer volume makes life extremely difficult for the Israeli Air Force. At times, the flocks are so numerous as to block out the sun. But what do the birds make of events on the ground? “Every year,” writes McCann, “a new landscape appears underneath: Israeli settlements, Palestinian apartment blocks, rooftop gardens, barracks, barriers, bypass roads”.

McCann, 54, is a Dublin-born novelist who resides in New York. He likes to situate himself in the borderless tradition of writers such as WG Sebald and Jorge Luis Borges and has identified with John Berger’s description of himself as a “patriot of elsewhere”. His own fiction is concerned with transcendence – rising above national borders, conflict, trauma and grief, as well as aesthetic boundaries – so it’s no surprise that birds and flight should feature so prominently. His 1998 novel, This Side of Brightness, opened with a man attempting to free a bird from the frozen Hudson. TransAtlantic (2013) examined migration between Ireland and America through the story of the first non-stop flight across the Atlantic.

Birds form the central metaphor of McCann’s seventh novel, Apeirogon, a kaleidoscopic work that centres on the real-life stories of two fathers – one Israeli, one Palestinian – both grieving for daughters killed in one of the world’s most intractable conflicts. Birds feature as witnesses and emissaries; as scientific models for the creation of drones and missiles; as symbols of political regimes; as the deadly enemies of aircraft; and as food for pampered leaders – specifically the former French president, François Mitterrand, whose last meal consisted of the rare and illegal thumb-sized delicacy of the ortolan songbird.

An apeirogon is a geometrical term for a shape with a near-infinite but countable number of sides and angles – an appropriate metaphor for a book that can indeed feel a little endless as it attempts to convey a singular message about love, redemption and healing.

McCann presents his novel in 1,001 segments, counting up to 500 and back down again, with an extra fragment in the middle. Some are fiction, some are non-fiction, and they are interspersed with scientific facts, historical portraits, retellings of myths, and quotes from literature (perhaps unsurprisingly, given McCann’s structure, there are frequent references to One Thousand and One Nights), as well as random information about everything from the history of water clocks to the workings of a human eye. There are even photographs embedded in the text, Sebald-style. McCann adds the provocative subtitle “a novel” because he wants us to question that claim. Apeirogon occupies the unsettled, disputed territory between fact and fiction.

Rami Elhanan is a veteran of the Israeli army whose 13-year-old daughter Smadar was killed in a Jerusalem suicide bombing in 1997. She had been shopping for school books. Ten years later, Bassam Aramin’s ten-year-old daughter, Abir, was fatally wounded by a rubber bullet fired by Israeli border police. She was buying a bracelet of sweets. The men seem “the most unlikely of friends, even beyond of the obvious, one being Israeli, the other Palestinian”.

Bassam, who was born in a cave near Hebron from which his family were later evicted by Israeli forces, was imprisoned at 17 for planning an attack against Israel. In jail, he befriended a Jewish guard, took classes in Hebrew and eventually became convinced that the suffering of the Jews in the Holocaust was “real – it had happened”. After seven years in prison and a 17-day hunger strike, Bassam married and had six children, later co-founding Combatants for Peace, an Israeli-Palestinian movement of former fighters committed to non-violence.

The men first encountered each other through Rami’s son, a former Israeli soldier, at a group gathering. After the deaths of their daughters, they began meeting most days, eventually teaming up to become advocates for peace. Rami, a graphic designer, had spent most of his life casually looking down on Arabs, who “were there to fix our fridges on a Saturday”. But his wife, Nurit, is an outspoken critic of Israel and when Smadar was a baby she became a literal poster child for the peace movement. The slogan read: “What will life in Israel be like when Smadar reaches 15?” Smadar died two weeks away from her 14th birthday.

Some of the book’s most affecting moments are the brief glimmers of hope for peace. McCann revisits the real-life protagonist of his novel Let the Great World Spin (2009), which centred on Philippe Petit’s famous tightrope walk between New York’s Twin Towers in 1974. Here, he presents a beautifully controlled account of how the French acrobat walked 1,000 feet along a steel cable stretched between Jerusalem’s Arab and Jewish sectors, a stunt entitled “A Bridge for Peace”. Petit just about managed to release a dove midway through the walk, as the three-year-old Smadar watched from her father’s shoulders.

But the novel’s most electrifying moment arrives at its midpoint. We read speeches delivered by Bassam and Rami, pulled together directly from interviews. Their friendship has become their superpower. “They were so close that, after a while, Rami felt that they could finish each other’s stories… Word for word, pause for pause, breath for breath.”

One way of describing Apeirogon would be “documentary fiction”, a term that Sebald used for his novels. McCann also follows Sebald in his impassive tone: measured, solemn, sardonic when required. Borges is another idol. The Argentinian writer’s trip to Jerusalem is recounted in the book, as is his description of One Thousand and One Nights: “Time appeared inside time, inside yet another time.” Something to aim for, McCann must have thought.

The free-associative approach is also reminiscent of the cult documentary maker Adam Curtis, whose films find weird connections between seemingly unrelated moments in history. But McCann’s unpredictable leaps in both form and content often leave your brain feeling more exhausted than enlarged. At times, Apeirogon strains too hard for connections and patterns, which distract and detract from the story’s emotional core. McCann aims to hover over vast tracts of history, but often comes across as flighty instead. I’m not sure how much I needed to know about John Cage’s exploits in a reverberation-free “anechoic chamber” or how many gallons of water it takes to fill the average swimming pool.

These detours are all the more jarring given his apparent lack of interest in the novel’s female characters. The dead daughters are voiceless; the wives are passive, shadowy figures. Rami’s wife, Nurit Peled-Elhanan, – a former school mate of Binyamin Netanyahu – seems an interesting woman. The daughter of an Israeli general, she became a peace activist, a professor of Hebrew and a human rights campaigner. But McCann prefers lofty ruminations on male genius – Picasso, Gandhi, Rumi, Pascal.

Apeirogon could have been a lot more powerful had it been shorter and simpler; an octagon or heptagon, perhaps. But there is beauty and tenderness in McCann’s endeavour: Bassam and his wife refusing to paint over their dead daughter’s height markings until their other children grow past them; or Rami nervously queuing to use the telephone box after hearing of the suicide bomb that killed his daughter. It’s hard not to admire all that lovely noticing. He has entered into the lives of others and found poetry there. 

Apeirogon 
Colum McCann
Bloomsbury, 480pp, £18.99

Johanna Thomas-Corr is a literary critic and a New Statesman contributing writer

This article appears in the 21 February 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The age of pandemics