Colum McCann’s ambitious new novel tells the true story of the friendship between two men brought together by tragedy. The title, Apeirogon, refers to a shape with an infinite but countable number of sides, and this image serves as a metaphor for both political complexity as well as the episodic manner in which the story unfolds.
Palestinian Bassam Aramin’s life was transformed when, jailed as a teenager, he became interested in Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Gandhi. Upon release, Bassam co-founded Combatants for Peace, a grassroots movement committed to nonviolence in Israel and the West Bank, and got a degree in Holocaust Studies in England. After Bassam’s daughter was shot and killed by an Israeli border guard in 2005, he joined the Parents Circle-Families Forum, an organization founded for Israeli and Palestinian families who have lost relatives to the violence. There, he met graphic designer Rami Elhanan, 19 years his senior, whose daughter was killed in a suicide bombing in 1997. The two men have made it their lives’ work to travel together all over the world, telling their daughters’ stories in their quest for peace.
Apeirogon takes place during a single day as the men make their separate ways to a monastery in Beit Jala, a Palestinian Christian town in Bethlehem, where they have a speaking engagement. Bassam leaves from his home in Jericho, traveling through checkpoints, worried he will be stopped for having a headlight out, and Rami is on his motorcycle, crossing in and out of Israel-occupied territories.
As in earlier novels (Dancer, TransAtlantic), McCann mixes history and fiction, shifting narrators, place and time into a seamless though sprawling whole. Through 1,001 brief fragments that lead up to and away from two monologues, one by each man, McCann interweaves their lives with topics as diverse as soccer, avian migration and, in a tip of the hat to Let the Great World Spin, Philippe Petit, who walked a tightrope strung over the Jewish and Arab neighborhoods in 1987 Jerusalem. Segment after segment evokes the experiences of McCann’s protagonists, their families and the divided land in which they live.
McCann’s protagonists believe that if a country’s commitment to peace leads the way, the most complex politics will sort themselves out. Apeirogon makes space for this belief, a placeholder for a future where irreparable loss transforms violence, where grief leads to reconciliation.