"Bassam Aramin is Palestinian. Rami Elhanan is Israeli. They inhabit a world of intractable conflict that colors every aspect of their daily lives, from the roads they are allowed to take to the schools their daughters, Abir and Smadar, each attend. Theirs is a life in which children from both sides of the wall throw stones at one another. But their worlds shift irreparably when ten-year-old old Abir is killed by a rubber bullet meant to quell unruly crowds, and again when thirteen-year-old Smadar becomes the victim of suicide bombers. When Bassam and Rami learn one another's stories and the loss that connects them, they become part of a much larger tale that ranges over centuries and continents. Apeirogon is a novel that balances on the knife edge of fiction and nonfiction. Bassam and Rami are real men and their actual words are a part of this narrative, one that builds through thousands of moments and images into one grand, unforgettable crescendo"--
Colum McCann isn't creating a story here, but recounting real events about living people, but using his immense skills as a novelist to approach the heart of the matter, not with a recounting of events, although that is part of this book, but a portrait of a friendship and a partnership between a Palestinian and a Jewish Israeli, both of whom had daughters who were killed, Smadar and Abir, one by a Palestinian suicide bomber as she shopped on a busy market street with friends, one by a rubber bullet aimed by an Israeli soldier as she walked back to school after buying candy. Both men work tirelessly towards a peace that often seems impossible. And their own histories are fascinating. Rami is the son-in-law of a founding member of the Knesset and a man who tried to live outside of the conflicts of the Israeli state, before having to put his life into working towards a peace although simply opposing the Occupation makes him a traitor in the eyes of many of his fellow citizens. And Bassam was imprisoned as a teenager as a terrorist, learned Hebrew while incarcerated and became a scholar of the Holocaust. The death of his daughter happened years into his involvement with the peace movement and he didn't hesitate to continue with that work despite that and the constant danger he faces simply moving regularly between Jerusalem and the West Bank.
Surprisingly, this isn't a preachy book, although there is a clear point of view. It's gorgeously told and so well-constructed, with the central sections being led up to and then the hinge on which the remainder of the book rests. Towards the beginning of this book, I worried that the sheer skill and beauty of the writing were preventing an emotional connection. By the middle, I no longer thought that. McCann has written a book that serves his subject matter well.
While the novel is structured around memories related to McCann by Rami and Bassam and is enhanced by McCann's research, it is not simply biographical. What he has succeeded in doing is to convey what it must have been like for both men to live in a disputed territory. I had never really thought about how it would be to live in a place where I felt I had to be constantly on guard, worried about being in the wrong place at the wrong time. As a Palestinian, Bassam was subject to curfews and restrictions as to what roads he could travel, and he could be stopped at a checkpoint at any time where he could be subject to strip searches, beatings, and arrest. He had seen family, friends, and neighbors roughly evicted from their homes without warning, their possessions shattered or confiscated. As a teenager, he was arrested as a terrorist for participating in a protest and spent seven years in prison. There, the kindness of one of his guards led him to learn Hebrew so that they could better communicate, and this, in turn, led Bassam to become a student of the Holocaust. Rami's backgroun was somewhat similar, despite the fact that he is an Israeli Jew. He served his compulsory tour of duty in the Israeli army where he participated in checkpoints, searches, and general warfare during the Occupation. His freedom of movement was also restricted, and, of course, there was the ever-present fear of suicide bombers. But Rami also had men of peace in his family: his father-in-law was an original member of the Knesset but was viewed by many as a traitor because he advocated for a peaceful settlement.
It is McCann's structure, added to his poetic prose, that gives readers of Apeirogon the impression of living inside the minds, hearts, and bodies of Rami and Bassam. The book is written in 1001 chapter that tell their stories not in a typically lineal narrative form but jumping through time and space and from topic to topic. The chapters move from 1 to 500, chapter 1001 marks the middle point, and then we move from 500 to 1. I'm not entirely sure what McCann intended; perhaps 1001 is the meeting point of the two men, two sides, two religions, although these are interspersed throughout. Some chapters are quite long while others consist of a single sentence or a photograph. Some chapters are somewhat dry summaries of history and politics; others are composed of long lists of items of both small and large consequence. But whether he is describing the care and habits of birds, the eating habits of heads of state, the political history of Israel, meetings of The Parents' Circle, Smadar's love of dancing or Abir's love of math, or any other topic, two themes are never far from the surface: the power of the individual to destroy, and the power of the individual to make things whole again.
This is the kind of book that you need to accept on it's own terms and to experience rather than simply read. Feel it rather than analyzing it or searching for a single line of meaning. It's an amazing story, amazingly told.
It took a while to get into this as the beginning spends more time (perhaps than it needed to) about birds that migrate over this part of the world. However, the imagery of birds continue to appear through the book. Gradually, the reader comes to understand the situation of both men and through their experiences and the experiences even remotely related to them, the read begins to see a picture of the many faceted situation in that country. A apeirogon is a geometrical shape with a countably infinite number of sides. That is exactly what this book is - a book attempting to show the man sides of this conflict -- some as short as one sentence, others as long as three or four pages.
I admit that I had to keep my phone nearby in order to research some of the references that are used in the book or perhaps to read more. For example, the section that tells of the destruction of a centuries old pulpit in a mosque in Jerusalem - I needed to see pictures. There were some things I could not confirm such as the drinking of a odor producing product "Skunk" by a Texas executive in order to show how safe it was.
I learned a lot from this book, but still can't even begin to understand the lives led by people in this region. McCann did an excellent job of painting a modern art picture filled with splashes of story that create an overall picture. Not for everyone, but a book that could be read many times.
And this book is circular, but with so many different lines. Bassam and Rami have both lost children to Israeli/Palestinian conflicts. One is an Israeli and one is Palestinian. And they manage to come together for peace. This novel is based on those two very real people, all the more powerful for it.
“It slowly dawned on Bassam that the only thing they had in common was that both sides had once wanted to kill people they did not know.”
To Senator John Kerry - “You killed my daughter.” And to his credit, Senator Kerry took this to heart.
There are lots of other real people in this book, doing both good and horrible things. The first one who caught my attention was former French president Francois Mitterand, who ate tiny songbirds just because he could. Birds are a theme in this book, and animals are treated as cruelly and unjustly as humans. This is a book of hoe, but it is not a feel-good book. It is one of those books that leaves a lasting impression on me.
This is an odd book. I listened to an audio version and was initially annoyed by the one-sentence chapters I heard, but I got used to that. In the end, it made an impact. As did the chapters numbers reversing themselves and decreasing in the second half of the book. As I got into the rhythm of the book, I appreciated the writing form. But it seems the print and ebook versions have photos I was not able to see. I think this is a good book to read rather than to hear.
I read a lot of “good” books and a fair amount of “fluff.” Few have the staying power of this one.
Apeirogon’s unique structure effectively imitates the “countably infinite” sides of a complex political issue. The novel is made up of 1001 very short chapters, numbered from 1 to 500, and then from 500 to 1. Each Chapter 500 is one man’s account of their loss and subsequent activism, taken directly from published texts. Chapter 1001, actually an ending of sorts, is placed in between these two accounts. Other chapters introduce topics which seem random at first, but soon coalesce and become meaningful. While some of these tangents worked better than others, overall the book helped me examine the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in new ways that were both thought provoking and moving.
Before reading this book, the reader should know the definition of the title word because it will help to understand the style and format of the novel. The definition of an apeirogon is a polygon that has an infinite number of sides and vertices. As you read McCann’s book you will discover that so too does his story. Parts of it repeat and repeat throughout the narrative as with phrases like “rise up little girl”. It does sometimes get tedious, but it is never boring. McCann intersperses this novel with facts that I guarantee most readers will claim ignorance of until he reveals them. How many readers will have known that the torah and the pomegranate have something in common? That said, the novel itself is subtly about the Middle East conflict in much the same way that “Let the Great World Spin” was about 9/11. McCann’s use of symbolism is exceptional. His use of vocabulary to create images is superlative.
Ten years apart, two terrible tragedies occur. One involves Rami, whose daughter Shadar was murdered. He happens to be a Jerusalemite. The other involves Bassam, whose daughter Abir was murdered. He is a Palestinian who lives on the West Bank. One fights wars in defense of Israel, one fights wars to gain freedom from Israel. The book itself seems to slightly favor the side of the Palestinians as it uses a term that is often unacceptable to some Israelis and Jews, i.e. Occupation. However, in the Arab/Israeli conflicts, the wars were won and the land was part of the spoils of war which belong to the victor. In this novel, both men believe the conditions are unfair, both become allies working to bring both sides together to end the Occupation through a group called the Parent’s Circle.
However, when you drill down, one of the victims was blown up in a deliberate act of violence, and the other was killed in an unpremeditated act. Nevertheless, both actions resulted in the death of innocents. Still the death of Abir is treated as a bit more tragic and undeserved. It is Bassam who receives remuneration. Who would Rami sue? In the end, both acts were intentionally committed, regardless of whether they were intentionally planned. Israel is always on patrol, and the Intifada and Jihad are ongoing, which necessitates the patrols…thus it is an infinite action and reaction, it is like an apeirogon.
The fathers of the murdered girls become involved in a group called the Parent’s Circle. They begin to work for peace and understanding between Arabs and Israelis and begin to try not to hate. This conflict is ongoing; both sides believe the land is theirs. They have to find a way to live on it together.
Through the use of symbolism and historic facts, McCann knits together a story that humanizes both of the bereaved families, shining a light on the way all people suffer the loss of a loved one, but especially the loss of a child. In Israel, all children serve in the military and are at risk, as are all Israelis from the constant attacks. In the Arab territory, they all feel oppressed and are often abused by the Israeli soldiers who have more sophisticated weapons..
When this author introduces birds, they are not just beautiful creatures floating in the sky, they are also capable of bringing pain, becoming weapons. In a symbolic way, McCann had Philippe Patek walk a tightrope carrying a dove with him to symbolize peace, but the bird wouldn’t fly away. Was that a symbol of the unending conflicts, not only in the Middle East but throughout history? McCann also manages to make a rubber bullet become the symbol of a parachutist ejected from a plane that has been shot down. Both events will result in the death of someone, although both were not intended for that use. When McCann introduces Arab hang gliders, they can seem utterly graceful, but he also makes them weapons of destruction. He compares them to the beauty of birds, the same birds that the Arabs traditionally treat tenderly yet they attach little bombs to them. It is these same birds that innocently fly into the engine of a plane and are destroyed and cause destruction.
Using 1001 anecdotes, McCann opens the readers’ eyes to the Middle East conflict and to historic conflict. Is his message that conflict is unending? His style is unusual. The anecdotes increase, counting upward until half way through the book when they begin to decrease until they go back to one. Through the use of these little anecdotes and bits of information, he subtly points out that all parents, Muslim and Jew, love their children and would do anything to keep them safe and make them well. They all pray for them to survive the perils they face everyday. They all may want justice and revenge. Just as the Jews say never forget about the Holocaust, when the fathers say they will never forget, it drives both messages home.
The message of the book is that the Occupation is unfair. The Palestinians are humiliated and abused by Israel, since they cannot pass freely into Israel and are overpowered by them. The reason for the strict security is not stressed in the novel, and the author does not play up the terrorist attacks on the Israelis that require the security. He does not mention that they fill ambulances with bombs, strap them on children whom they turn into bombs, or that their madrassas, teach them to hate Israelis and train the young to kill them. He does not dwell on the fact that Israelis often are forced to run to shelters with only seconds to spare, or that they have compulsory military service because of their lack of national security, due to the never ending Palestinian hostility.
But, once I settled into it, McCann has written something pretty spectacular. Yes, it is written in one thousand sections--some only a sentence, most short paragraphs, and some a few pages. And yes, countably infinite sides. The story revolves around the Israeli/Palestine conflict while focusing mainly on two real men and their daughters, both killed during the struggle. McCann’s narrative weaves in and out with historical stories, quotations, and seemingly unconnected pieces that he eventually returns to with such finesse the connection then feels obvious. At times the narrative becomes so pervasive it feels like nonfiction, but that is not a negative for me as I was so wrapped up in the men’s story. McCann spins a complicated tale with infinite sides that is sure to be on many best of the year lists, and a must-read for literary fiction fans not afraid of a challenging structure and topic.
It expands over the regular, over nuance, and over time. It also bends fiction and nonfiction to weave several arcs into one, not that it makes this book difficult or complicated.
The book focuses on the friendship between an Israeli man and a Palestinian man, their respective deaths in the families, and of how life works for most people; I'm being fuzzy, but the book—as well as human life—is; this book throws more nuance into the picture than most do, which is quite a feat, considering that this is all about human beings in Palestine and Israel.
This book engrossed and changed me. It's that big.
There are no other words that I can use to review the book other than say it's very human and beautifully pieced together; the book consists of 1,001 chapters. It's a marvellous and daring feat to write a book in this way, but consider how human thought is mostly led up different twists and turns. We're all kinetic in thought and act and this book reflects this. It also provides solace, meditation, thinking, while providing ethics, morals, thoughts, invasion, hatred, war, anger, forgiveness, and, foremost, understanding.
Understanding for each other. This is also why the book serves a very important purpose. It goes beyond where many books even are predestined to go.
A rubber bullet, when shot from a metal tube on the end of an M-16, leaves the barrel of the gun at more than one hundred miles per hour. The bullets are large enough to be seen but too fast to be avoided. They were tested first in Northern Ireland, where the British called them knee-knockers: they were designed to be fired at the ground, then bounce up and hit the legs of rioters.
The soldiers called the bullets Lazarus pills: when possible, they could be picked up and used again.
The room had two large sofas, a long table and eight red chairs. Nobody took the sofas at first. They sat at opposite ends of the table. The language that they might use for each other was already fraught: Muslim, Arab, Christian, Jew, soldier, terrorist, fighter, martyr, occupier, occupied.
An hour slid by. The Israelis leaned into the table. One of them had, he said, been a pilot. Another, a paratrooper. One had spent much of his service as a commander at the Qalandia checkpoint. They had been in the forces, yes, but they had begun to speak out: against the Occupation, humiliation, murder, torture. Bassam sat stunned. He had never heard an Israeli mention such words before. He was certain they were on an operation. Intelligence, surveillance, an undercover ploy. What confused him was that one of them, Yehuda, looked like a settler. Stout and spectacled, with a long beard. Even his hair wore the mark of a kippah. Yehuda had been an officer in Hebron. He had, he said, begun to rethink it all, the conscription, the operations, all the talk of a moral army. Bassam leaned back in his chair and scowled. Why would they send such a glaring ruse? What kind of mockery was this? Perhaps, he thought, it was a form of double-think, triple-think: the Israelis were known for it, their mesmerizing chess, their theater, intricate and ruthless.
There are two to three seconds of consciousness after decapitation when the brain is still functioning: the mouth can make a sound and there can be ocular movement, a twitching of the eyeball or the opening—or closing—of an eyelid. It is said that decapitated men often look surprised as their bodies separate from their heads: as if their final thoughts are in flight, visions of loved ones in Stockholm, in Savannah, in Sierra Leone, in so many small and scattered Samarias.
Once, during Salman Rushdie’s fatwa, the Indian novelist received a single pebble in the mail, alone in a white envelope with no note included. The pebble sat on his desk for years until a New York house-cleaner mistakenly swept it up and threw it away.
The Kabbalists, in their attempt to examine the nature of the divine, are known to envision two aspects of God. The first, known as Ein Sof, finds God to be transcendent, unknowable, impersonal, endless and infinite. The second aspect is accessible to human perception, revealing the divine in the material world, available in our finite lives. Far from contradicting each other, the two aspects of the divine— one locatable, one infinite—are said to be perfectly complementary to one another, a form of deep truth to be found in apparent opposites.
Borges, too, was fascinated by the Kabbalah. He suggested that the world might merely be a system of symbols and that the universe, including the stars, was a manifestation of God’s secret handwriting.
Borges wrote that it only takes two facing mirrors to form a labyrinth.
As a teenager, Bassam learned to carry an onion in his pocket to combat the scorch of tear gas in his lungs.
The Czech composer and pianist Rafael Schächter was held at the camp in Theresienstadt where he managed to smuggle in a legless upright piano. It was kept, at first, in a basement. Schächter conducted a chorus of Jewish musicians in sixteen performances of Giuseppe Verdi’s Requiem. The musicians learned the intricate music from a single vocal score. Schächter was interested in keeping the camp morale high. The performances were attended by senior Nazis and guards who, at the end, gave standing ovations. The final performance came during Operation Embellishment when excerpts of the Requiem were played for the Danish government officials and the Red Cross, after which Schächter was loaded in a railroad cattle car and shipped off to Auschwitz where he, like the filmmaker Kurt Gerron, heard the pellets dropping down through the grates in the ceiling.
After Schächter’s final performance, Eichmann is reported to have said: Those crazy Jews, singing their own requiem.
And you know, you just know, deep in your heart, by the way the nurses look at you, by the way the policemen shake their heads, by their hesitance, by the silences, you know, but you won’t admit it. You do this for many long hours until eventually, very late at night, you and your wife find yourselves in the morgue.
Which begs the question: How do you capture the scope and scale of such a complex problem in a single work? In Apeirogon, Colum McCann gives us his answer and what a response it is. Although subtitled “A Novel”, this book is not really fiction in a conventional sense. Indeed, it defies any straightforward description, much like the subject matter it addresses. In the process of telling the very personal accounts of two real men—Rami, the Israeli father, and Bassam, his Palestinian counterpart—the author weaves in much relevant history of these two ancient cultures in order to provide the necessary context for understanding how the situation got to the point that it has. McCann goes far beyond mere forensic journalism, however, creating an impressive pastiche of vignettes involving personal memories, historical narratives, cultural references from literature and music, scientific and medical analysis, military history, and even ornithology (yes, birds serve as an important metaphor throughout the story).
It is worth noting that Apeirogon is a book with a very unique and inventive structure. The text is organized into 1,001 short chapters that vary in length from a few pages to a single sentence. This ordering is meant to pay homage to One Thousand and One Nights, the classic collection of Middle Eastern folk tales from which McCann draws much inspiration. The chapters are then grouped into sections of fifty and listed from 1-500 and then back from 500 to 1 at the end, with the middle chapter being numbered 1,001. This device permits something of a symmetry in the storytelling, which begins and concludes with the heartbreaking tales of the deaths of Smadar and Abir as well as their families’ efforts to create something positive from those senseless tragedies. To his credit, the author resists suggesting an easy answer to the violence and oppression, although he does underscore that the Israeli occupation of the West Bank is significant factor in the continuing tension.
So, what should the reader take away from having consumed this lengthy volume? Above all else, it offers the opportunity to learn so much more about one of the defining global conflicts of the past century, as seen through the sad experiences of two men from different walks who become unlikely comrades. Beyond that, the breadth of knowledge that McCann incorporates into the story makes it a singularly remarkable work of scholarship. On the other hand, it is difficult for me to think of the considerable contents of this book as anything but a non-fictional record of people who actually exist and events that actually occurred. Further, in candor, some of the narrative regarding the fathers’ on-going attempts to “tell their story” were quite repetitive and made the entire project longer than it needed to be. Still, this is a moving and well-written account that adds an important voice to the chorus chronicling the seemingly endless Israeli-Palestinian dispute.
“Ignorance is a terrible acquaintance.”
Researched in detail, woven together like a powerfully poetic piece of tapestry, this book is a literary work of art.
And yet, it's so terribly convoluted for a reader. It's a little like viewing a huge mural shaped around a specific theme, and trying to mentally put all the pieces together. Because of this, I wonder if Apeirogon is a novel best read slowly, and repeatedly. It's a difficult task to take everything in. This is a novel that is brilliant and incredibly touching, but so meandering that it is too easy to get lost. I won't be surprised to see McCann net a nomination for a couple large Prizes with this one, but it's not likely to ever be regarded as one of his more accessible works.
McCann tells their stories using a non-linear narrative form liberally sprinkled with a rich collection of anecdotes about the history, flora and fauna of the region while emphasizing the dehumanizing nature of racist activities like checkpoints, walls, incarcerations, terrorism and torture. One comes away with a naturalistic sense of the region and its conflict. McCann’s mix of the didactic and personal avoids easy answers but never loses sight of the futility and brutality of things as they are or his overarching theme that both sides could benefit from greater empathy based on their common humanity.
I am Jewish, have several Arab friends, and have spent a lot of time in Israel so this book captured my attention when I first heard about it. The novel is based on the true story of a friendship between an Israeli father and a Palestinian father; a friendship, between two men who were raised to hate each other, formed from the shared grief of two fathers. Rami Elhanan’s 13-year-old daughter was killed by a suicide bomber; Bassam Aramin’s 10-year-old daughter killed by a rubber bullet.
Apeirogon - a shape with a countably infinite number of sides. This so aptly describes the complexity of the Israeli-Palestinian situation.
McCann presents the heartbreaking story of these two men with sensitivity and compassion and leaves us with a slight glimmer of hope. Written in fragments, instead of chapters, I got the sense of snapshots of the reality of life in Israel – a kaleidoscope of fragments coming together and shifting, morphing from one reality to another, constantly changing, yet remaining the same.
(Note: The movie rights for this book have already been purchased by Steven Spielberg’s company Amblin.)
Heartfelt thanks to Random House for the Advance Reading Copy.