Colum McCann’s beautiful story is based on the tragic deaths of two young girls from cultures in conflict with each other. Apeirogon, a Novel, (2020) is about how the girls’ fathers unite to tell their stories.
The grieving fathers, Bassam Aramin, a Palestinian, and Rami Elhanan, an Israeli, come together on a mission to find peace. “They carried their stories with them,” wrote McCann.
The narrative is driven by the disparate voices of the men. Their cultural differences are stark, but the love and grief the Palestinians feel are in sync with that of the Israelis. For the two of them, this is the force that overcomes what divides their communities.
The novel’s structure is very unusual and fascinating. One thousand short and pointed chapters are numbered from one to 500, then down again from 500 to one, and illustrated with drawings and pictures. Some strategically placed chapters contain no words at all.
Bassam, the father of Abir, and Rami, father of Smadar, pair up to talk to audiences about their daughters — their favorite colors, what they studied in school, what they liked to eat, and their lifestyles and daily routines. The descriptions of the girls and real-life, relatable events that included them, stir images of who they must have been.
Of themselves, the men offer the following: Rami Elhanan introduces himself as “the father of Smadar. I am a seventh-generation Jerusalemite. Also what you might call a graduate of the Holocaust.” Bassam comments on the warring societies they represent, “the only thing they had in common was that both sides had once wanted to kill people hey did not know.”
The word “apeirogon” is not in the heavy 20-year old dictionary that sits on my desk. But McCann defines t as “a shape with countably infinite number of sides,” a concept felt throughout the novel — that in spite of the intense conflict between their respective cultures, the voices of Bassam and Rami each reflect so many perspectives, that ultimately and inevitably, common ground emerges to blend into a single narrative.
Incarcerated readers, particularly lifers, may identify with Apeirogon’s examination of time, endurance and hope: “He had learned that the cure for fate was patience,” chapter 191, meaning it takes time for people to realize that one’s destiny is tied to where they’re at — which is something we also learn doing time. As many incarcerated folks say, “Do the time; don’t let the time do you.”
Serving long sentences also forces incarcerated people to ponder “The anatomy of boredom,” chapter 177, knowing that “Time [is] endless and hollow,” and that in prison there’s “More loneliness than rage,” Chapter 196.
Incarcerated immigrants may be able to identify with the line: “It never ceases to astound him what a difference a border can make: the arbitrary line, redrawn further along,” chapter 64.
BLM advocates know that under certain circumstances when encountering power, it’s important to “Always he kept his hands in view. He knew never to make a sudden move,” Mc- Cann wrote of Bassam when he was stopped at an Israeli checkpoint.
Apeirogon communicates a sense of comfort and hope. Although people come from different parts of the world, ultimately our common experiences will bring us together, even if only in grief and mutual loss. At that time, we’ll have to find a way to live together in peace.