Apeirogon bills itself as a novel, but it defies the categorization in several ways. It is the story of Rami and Bassam (pictured), Israeli and Palestinian, and each of their tragic losses: Rami’s daughter, Smadar, killed by a Palestinian suicide bomber; and Bassam’s daughter, Abir, killed by a rubber bullet fired by the Israeli military. The fathers forge a friendship from their trauma and take up the work of peace and reconciliation together. It is a true story.
But that story is merely connective tissue as Colum McCann plunges us into the region — history, culture, conquests, conflicts, climate, casinos, ornithology, and so much more.
Apeirogon is not a narrative but a series of vignettes. A thousand and one vignettes, to be exact, which is a reference to One Thousand and One Nights, the seminal collection of Arabic and Middle Eastern legends and folktales (often called “Arabian Nights”).
These vignettes stretch across centuries and continents, but they are interrelated in that they add context to Rami and Bassam’s story and immerse us ever more deeply into the place.
I knew that Rami and Bassam are real people. I had assumed that Apeirogon was classified as a novel — as opposed to narrative nonfiction — because McCann had found inspiration in their story and then taken liberties and fictionalized in service of a plot.
Instead, McCann mostly dispenses with plot altogether.
What we see from Rami and Bassam is largely reflective of their reality: no doubt with some embellishment, but no more than one would see in any work of historical narrative nonfiction.
If Apeirogon is a novel — and McCann has described it as an experiment in storytelling form — it is such because of the other pieces that he has chosen to bring in. All are rooted in history and real experience, but the artistic liberties come as he offers glimpses of, for example, crossings through Israeli border checkpoints and centuries-old explorations to chart the Dead Sea.
Birds, in their borderlessness, are a recurring symbol:
“Five hundred million birds arc the sky over the hills of Beit Jala every year. They move by ancient ancestry: hoopoes, thrushes, flycatchers, warblers, cuckoos… It is the world’s second busiest migratory superhighway: at least four hundred different species of birds torrent through, riding different levels in the sky. Long vees of honking intent. Sole travelers skimming low over the grass. Every year a new landscape emerges underneath: Israeli settlements, Palestinian apartment blocks, rooftop gardens, barracks, barriers, bypass roads.”Apeirogon – Colum McCann
An apeirogon is a shape with a countably infinite number of sides. If “countably infinite” is puzzling, picture this: a series of lines (sides) getting as close as you can come to a circle — like, microscopically close — before the individual lines become indistinguishable from each other, forming a single looping circle. The title makes sense for a book of its structure, with loosely related vignettes swirling around a central story, and for its subject matter, which is surely among the most complex conflicts in human history.
Apeirogon doesn’t ask which side you’re on. It asks you to think beyond sides. To zoom in on the grief of Bassam and Rami and then zoom back out to a bird’s eye view.
The novel loses something to this structure. For me, it blunted the impact of Rami and Bassam’s trauma. We never linger with them long enough to truly absorb the weight of the violent deaths of their two young girls. It becomes less emotionally gripping. And the narrative payoff that you might expect from working through a weighty 450-page novel is not quite there because Apeirogon doesn’t dwell on conventional narrative.
And yet, isn’t this how memory works? Do our minds not hopscotch through thousands of vignettes and fragmentary recollections, with a sprinkling of stray-but-interesting-and-semi-related factoids?
McCann is probing memory here, and not just the memory of the protagonists, but the memory of the land itself. The result is transportive, sweeping but rooted in humanity.
What Apeirogon lacks in traditional plot, it makes up for in its immersiveness. And bursts of exceptionally beautiful writing.
It is a novel worth reading, but with understanding that it is not plot-driven and that “novel” doesn’t even capture what McCann is attempting.