Jenny Farrell reviews Apeirogon by Colum McCann
Unlike a pentagon, an apeirogon has an infinite number of sides, or aspects. The title of Colum McCann’s 2020 novel gives the reader an indication of the innumerable facets that form this novel. And yet at its core is the single, undisputed fact that the state of Israel is guilty of sustained human rights abuses, against the people of Palestine.
McCann tells the true story of Palestinian Bassam Aramin and Israeli Rami Elhanan, and their daughters: Abir Aramin killed by a rubber bullet in 2007, aged 10 and Smadar Elhanan killed by suicide bombers in 1997, aged 13. Bassam Aramin and Rami Elhanan met through the organization Combatants for Peace, who state:
Our ultimate goal is to end the occupation and the establishment of a Palestinian state based on the 1967 borders; two states living side by side in peace and cooperation or any other just solution agreed upon in negotiations.
The novel’s structure is unusual, in some ways resembling the workings of a restless mind. It seems to ‘jump’ from one thought to the next, the new idea prompted by an aspect of the previous one. Some of these ‘tangents’ can be tenuous and fleeting, others form key aspects of the complex woven fabric that is this novel.
This narrative style allows McCann to create a network of connections that spans the globe in terms of places and also in history. Everything is somehow connected. Human rights abuses form a pattern which include the Middle East. Rubber bullets were first used by the British in Northern Ireland, killing children there. And the use of deadly explosives is explored in many contexts, including the U.S.’s dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
The mind, when it has to take in an enormity, cannot constantly dwell on it. In order to take in a tragedy, the mind keeps returning to the fact, with breaks, circling it, slowly grasping it over an expanse of time. In the same way, the narrative never loses sight of the killings of Abir Aramin and Smadar Elhanan. Each time we return to them, new aspects are added, their stories and those of their families etched more and more clearly.
The novel is structured like the Arabian Nights, counting 500 sections ascending in order and 500 descending – with a section entitled 1001 in the middle. A great number of these fragmented sections are devoted to migratory birds, which seem to form part of the web that holds the global and yet local story together.
The personal is set in a larger political context. Neither strand of the novel loses sight of the other. To give a small example, McCann turns to his homeland Ireland, and to the conflicted north of the island in particular, to draw parallels. Here, the descendants of the Elizabethan settlers, the unionists, fly Israeli flags, while the community that might be forgiven to feel occupied by a colonizer, identifies with the Palestinians:
In the 1980s the greatest sale of Israeli flags — outside of Israel itself — was in Northern Ireland, where the Loyalists flew them in defiance of Irish Republicans who had adopted the Palestinian flag: whole housing estates shrouded in either blue and white, or black, red, white and green.
McCann has been accused of mystifying “the colonisation of Palestine as a ‘complicated conflict’ between two equal sides”. However, McCann never appeases the Israeli state, indeed one might easily suggest the opposite. Here is an example:
Mordechai Vanunu, a nuclear technician whose job it was to produce lithium-6 in the Dimona nuclear plant in the Negev, was sentenced to eighteen years in prison for divulging details of Israel’s weapons program. Vanunu smuggled a 35mm camera into Machon 2 and took fifty-nine photographs despite signing a secrecy agreement years earlier. He divulged the details first to a church group in Australia where he fled. Later, in London, where he went to publish the information, he was seduced in a honey-trap operation by a Mossad agent. He met the female agent again in Rome where he was overpowered, drugged, kidnapped, bound to a stretcher, driven by motorboat out to a spy ship, bundled into a cabin. He was interrogated by Mossad agents, whisked back to Israel to a secret prison run by the Shin Bet. Nearly twelve of his years in prison were spent in solitary confinement.
Cheryl Hanin Bentov—the honeypot who lured Vanunu to his capture—became a real estate agent in Alaqua, Florida, specializing in gated communities and waterfront properties.
Whose side the U.S. State is on in the Middle East conflict is apparent in several episodes, for example when Bassam Aramin insists on an inquiry into the death of his daughter (having had to pay for an autopsy himself) and the judge, who defied all efforts to prevent this, travels to the site of the attack and finds:
The court is of the opinion. We have come to the decision. We have weighed the varied testimonies. Abir Aramin was a resident of the Jerusalem municipality. We have decided. The responsibility of the State of Israel. It has been determined.
While “There had been no criminal charges, no official admission of guilt”, it is nevertheless considered a “landmark” judgement.
Several newspaper articles were published in Israel and the United States deploring the judge’s decision in the aftermath of the Aramin case. No civil proceedings should ever be allowed in such a military situation, they said. The criminal courts had already indicated that there was a lack of sufficient evidence. Why should the State have to shoulder the burden? It had been pointed out in court that it was possible that the child had been hit by a rock thrown by rioters and, even if she had been struck by a stray rubber bullet, an unlikely scenario, the Commander had testified that they were under relentless attack. The legal decision could, in the future, endanger the lives of Israeli soldiers forced to make crucial split-second decisions in the interests of security. If made to hesitate, they could endanger not only themselves but their fellow soldiers and indeed citizens. Furthermore, and most alarming, Bassam Aramin was a convicted terrorist. He had spent seven years in prison for a series of hand grenade attacks. He belonged to the Fatah faction, which he continued to support. One million shekels would, no doubt, go a long way towards another terrorist venture and who could know what he was planning now
And when Bassam Aramin visits US Senator John Kerry in his office, there is a recognition that…..
The American rifle. The American jeep. The American training. The American tear gas. The American dollar
…is central to Israeli state violence.
McCann does not paint a black-and-white picture. The parents of Smadar Elhanan do not side with their state. Her father, Rami, has developed this position over time, while her mother Nurit, openly supports Palestinians and frequently receives abuse and death threats.
Abir Aramin’s father, Bassam, was incarcerated aged 17 for seven years, for throwing stones. He comes from a tradition of struggle against the occupation. McCann never leaves any doubt as to where his sympathies lie. Near the end, McCann returns to his title-giving word once more:
From the Greek, apeiron: to be boundless, to be endless. Alongside the Indo-European root of per: to try, to risk.
McCann takes risks. One of these is selling the movie rights to Steven Spielberg, who has famously stated:
from my earliest youth, I have been an ardent defender of Israel [...] And because I am proud of being Jewish, I am worried by the growing anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism in the world. [...] If it became necessary, I would be prepared to die for the USA and for Israel.
One wonders how many sides will be left of McCann’s Apeirogon – five, or six? In the context of the recent escalation of violence in the Middle East and Ireland’s condemnation of Israel’s de-facto annexation policy, Apeirogon by Colum McCann is worth reading more than ever.
Jenny Farrell is a lecturer, writer and an Associate Editor of Culture Matters.