Books, Reviews

Colum McCann’s Apeirogon review: a courageously ambitious novel of our time

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Even before the pandemic, Colum McCann’s Apeirogon seemed so right for these times, so responsive to the globalised nature of human history as well as the rapid changes to human communication.

When the dominant reading format is a small screen that flashes constantly, it can require an effort to open a book and focus on its still pages. While experimentation in genres and formats is always happening, the success for such books is limited, if we measure by sales. Prizes, too, are still awarded to conventional books, and best-sellers especially conform to expectations.

McCann’s book is very ambitious: thematically, structurally and stylistically. It’s big and non-linear with no plot. Its urgent attraction for a reader comes not by setting up a storyline that makes you want to find out how it will end, but by accumulating many small stories: an image of birds in flight, a description of a famous tight-rope walker, the unlikely friendship between a prisoner and a prison guard, captive falcons, the death of a child.

While the bits-and-pieces format seems similar to the mishmash of messages that come up on a device screen, each part is written with skill and artistry (which is an essential component of why we define a book as literature), and at the same time it’s courageously ambitious in trusting the reader to see and hear the underlying patterns. If there were many struts and frets supporting its construction, they don’t show in any way that interferes with the mystery of this book. It’s like an upwelling of clear cold water from some deep cavern.

Its urgent attraction for a reader comes not by setting up a storyline that makes you want to find out how it will end, but by accumulating many small stories

McCann says he’s a storyteller and his novels have not, to this point, frightened any conventional horses. If he’d been able to tour Australia in May to talk about Apeirogon as had been planned before the pandemic, we might have heard him explain about why this novel is so radically different from his previous nine.

He would probably have told us he had written a novel (Transatlantic) about the peace negotiations behind the Irish “Troubles” and how the central character of that book, Senator George Mitchell, said to him, “If you think Ireland is complicated, you should try the Middle East.” So he did, travelling with the humanitarian Telos group and meeting the two men who are the central characters in this book. He’d have told us about his ignorance of the area and its history and how he just had to “follow my heart, my nose, my curiosity … sometimes when you come to it like that, the empty vessel can actually make more sound”.

Then, no doubt, he’d have explained the chopped-up format of this book, the way it counts up in sections to 500 then turns – after a section numbered 1001 that explains how McCann himself first heard the stories which are the impetus for this book – back to count down to one again. He’d have described what an apeirogon is, this shape with an infinite number of sides (good luck with that visualisation, my friend), and how that idea organises the shape and content of this book.

He’d likely have been asked about how he felt about appropriation, and whether he has encountered criticism about telling these stories, on behalf of people and cultures he is not part of. And he may even have been asked whether this book is “Exodus 2.0”, as Palestinian writer Susan Abulhawa said in Al Jazeera, concluding there is, in Apeirogon, “an overarching colonial message of parity that lends itself to Zionist propaganda”.

Abulhawa’s is an angry response, which rejects the premise of McCann’s book, that peace can only be negotiated by those who can and will listen. Responses from the United States, where McCann lives, have been overwhelmingly positive, and while that might support Abalhawa’s contention that this panders to colonialist falsifications, Apeirogon brings the cruelty and injustice of Israel’s Occupation of Palestine into sharp and incontrovertible focus. It’s the “complexity” of the situation that she refuses to accept and so it’s up to readers to decide if there are more than two sides to this horrible history, which is precisely why Apeirogon tries to find a form to mimic “countable infinity”.

I’m pleased to have read Abalhawa’s take on this book, even though it is challenging and unpleasant. For her, the patchworking I find so magnificent is a “dizzying kaleidoscope of world trivia”. I’d like to think that, even while acknowledging her criticism comes from lived experience and knowledge, it is still possible to appreciate the achievement of this novel, as writing that comes out of, responds to, and provides hope, at this time.

It is called a novel, and yet it is factual. Bassam Aramin’s 10-year-old daughter Abir was on her way to school in 2007 when she was shot by an Israeli soldier. A decade later, Rami Elhanan’s 14-year-old daughter Smadar was killed by a suicide bomber when she was out with friends. The two men met through groups that bring together bereaved Palestinians and Israelis, to talk. Much of the book is, then, non-fiction; the fiction part is McCann himself, bringing to the story his fierce desire to put off the story’s end-point, which would be the end of what these men and the other “Combatants for Peace” are trying to do, which is to counter hatred and violence with decency and compassion.

It seems to move very fast, until you realise that each section belongs in a thread, and the threads cross into patterns.

A non-fiction account would perhaps begin somewhere before the deaths of these two girls, and move towards the awful moments, then on to the bereft lives of the families and the way the killers were dealt with. Because the account circles rather than takes a straight line, the two deaths saturate every path taken by the words. What is inevitable is not avoided but allowed to resonate. It’s a little like those awesome Buddhist monk chants, the booming resonance of their voices so much more than music and yet overwhelmingly musical.

McCann’s story early on includes something I still am not sure how to digest: Francois Mitterand eating tiny ortolan birds, his final meal before his death. The ortolans, like many birds within Apeirogon, are described with care, time and again their mysterious beauty grounded by human greed. Often the symbolism is ambiguous, because the colours of reality don’t stay within the lines; this is a messy book in many ways. It can seem unruly, as a single-line section segues to an empty space or to a longer detailed description of events.

It seems to move very fast, until you realise that each section belongs in a thread, and the threads cross into patterns. So, for instance, the opening sequence of Rami on his motorbike, moving through the blasted landscape towards his meeting, is both descriptive and a metaphor. There’s a rhythm to his ride enforced by the dangers and restrictions of movement, and there is also the sound of his progress, lulled now by the need for caution, rising then to a defiant roar as he opens the throttle, swerving around obstacles, calculating how best to arrive safely.

That Mitterand scene at the beginning of Apeirogon might be about how violence is embedded in human history, in the big obvious ways such as wars, but also in small, seemingly insignificant ways, such as a once-powerful dying man crunching the bones of tiny birds, his final meal. Violence comes in many forms: to people, obviously, but also to animals, birds, the land and even to the mystery of life itself.

Violence comes in many forms: to people, obviously, but also to animals, birds, the land and even to the mystery of life itself.

That’s another reason this book is of our time, when we are listening a little more thoughtfully to how humanity’s idea of mastery is based on massive ignorance. This novel is a compendium of what you might be tempted to call trivial facts, except that there is nothing trivial about these moments of people’s frightful desires (to destroy things, to build monuments to their greed, to plunder in the name of ideology), just as there is nothing trivial about the death of the two girls.

If it strains to contain it all, it’s also a book that includes many other writers and histories, so the sense and ambition of it is not actually contained at all. That creates a very beautiful memorial for Abir and Smadar. The book does of course have an actual end, when we come to the last page of the curling 1001-part narrative that opens with a dawn motorbike ride and closes with “The hills of Jericho are a bath of dark.” Hubristic this may be, but McCann has even managed to find a way to describe writing using birds, in the short section 16 of the countdown to that final sentence of the book.

Did he have to rearrange his sections to make the contiguity effective? Were there bulging parts that needed to be removed, or did the shape evolve by some mathematical logic? If he’d been able to be with us in May, he might have answered such questions in a round-about way, by reading out that section 16:

“Sound is the preferred form of communication among birds since the noises made – singing, calling, honking, whistling, squeaking, warbling, croaking, clicking, trilling – carry far beyond the places the birds might be able to see.”

What is – or should be – the preferred communication among people? Writing sounds good. It certainly carries far beyond the places we might be able to see.

Apeirogon by Colum McCann is published by Bloomsbury.

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