Review: Apeirogon by Colum McCann

Review: Apeirogon by Colum McCann

I was certain Apeirogon was going to win The Booker Prize. It was at the top of my shortlist.

The structure of the book is fascinating: 1001 fragmented sections, modeled from One Thousand and One Nights (a collection of Middle Eastern folk tales compiled in Arabic during the Islamic Golden Age), and built around a gathering at a monastery where two fathers — one Palestinian, one Israeli — talk to an audience about how the occupation cost both of them their young daughters. Bassam Aramin and Rami Elhanan are actual people, and their daughters Abir (10) and Smadar (13) were actually killed by a rubber bullet and a bomb respectively. The book’s sections count up to 500 and then in the exact middle, after a section numbered 1001, it counts back down to 1 from 500. At the literal and figurative middle of the novel are Bassam and Rami’s individual testimonies about what the occupation and consequent conflict has cost them as fathers and ‘citizens.’ 

The first five hundred sections, organized around the journey to the monastery detail how the girls died. These details include how bombs are made, the history of rubber bullets and the weapons that fire them, descriptions of internment, and the transformations in the natural world as Israel develops its fortification apparatuses against Palestine. The second 500 take up their journeys home after speaking at the monastery and the sections counting back down to one detail more of Rami’s and Bassam’s friendship and their time together on an international speakers’ circuit.  In this way, Apeirogon structurally inhabits the ethos of its title and casts the complexity of this particular conflict as a polygon with an infinite number of sides. 

Lest we think though that the symmetry in the novel is about conflation and sameness between the plights of Israelis and Palestinians, its parallel treatment of Bassam and Rami instead demonstrates how a reality of institutionalized and quotidian violence contrastingly impacts each of their families. At the level of plot this looks like heads of state wanting to sit shiva with Rami and his wife Nurit when Smadar dies, and Bassam’s wife Salwa being strip searched in the airport — in front of her children — when the family returns to Palestine from England. The young children are also stripped searched after their mother. Beyond Rami and Bassam, this book isn’t so much about equity in suffering as it is about widening the scope of conflict globally and historically in a contrasting ways. 

Apeirogon takes the reader through a range of emotions: rage, grief, frustration, and surprisingly often, awe. For me, it was at the ways a much longer history of global conflict, beyond Israel and Palestine, contributed to the creation and fraught existence of occupied territories. This and its worlding of quotidian violence is what made me think it would win. But alas, it didn’t even make the shortlist.

This is not to say this is a loss for the prize. 2020’s shortlist is monumental in part because the literary field that Apeirogon exists in is far more expansive, and dare I say inclusive, than it used to be. That is, the net of great books has grown wider. We know McCan’s work in this novel is brilliant, but this year, the collective strength of the field meant that even with its impressive structure, there are six other books, just as gorgeously structured and transfixing in ways that tell us definitive things about what the novel is able to do in our present. Read Apeirogon because its weaving of fiction out of nonfiction, across centuries and continents, is cinematic and rhapsodic.


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