Colum McCann’s new novel Apeirogon is based on the actual murder of two young girls, 13-year-old Smadar Elhanan who lost her life when three Palestinian suicide bombers exploded themselves on Ben Yehuda Street in West Jerusalem on September 4, 1997, and 10-year-old Abir Aramin who was shot in the back of the head ten years later in Anata just four kilometers Northeast of Jerusalem’s Old City by an 18-year-old Israeli soldier as his jeep sped around a corner.
The girls’ fathers, Rami Elhanan (an Israeli Jew) and Bassam Aramin (a Palestinian Muslim) met at the Hotel Everest between Jerusalem and Bethlehem through Combatants for Peace, an organization of former Israeli soldiers and Palestinian fighters who shared one thing in common, “that both sides had once wanted to kill people they did not know.”
Rami and Bassam became part of the “Parents Circle” whose children were victims of violence. They talked and listened, and over time they understood that despite their many differences they shared the same grief. Eventually they travelled the world together talking before any group that would listen to them about their grief and about the necessity of making peace. They became like brothers.
The novel is divided into 1001 short chapters, homage to One Thousand and One Arabian Nights (“a ruse for life in the face of death”), a collection of Middle Eastern folk tales compiled in Arabic during the Islamic Golden Age. The chapters count from 1 to 500 and then 500 to 1. Number 1001 is placed in the center of the book and tells of the grief of these two fathers. That chapter is the most difficult part of the book to read.
The symmetry of Rami’s and Bassam’s stories is built into the structure of the novel itself.
Number 1, the first time, begins the novel – “The hills of Jerusalem are a bath of fog. Rami moves by memory through a straight stretch…”
Number 1, the second time, concludes the novel – “The hills of Jericho are a bath of dark. He moves along the wall to the second tree…”
The rest of the novel is an Apeirogon – “a polygon with an infinite yet countable number of sides…reflect[ing] the infinite complications that underlie the girls’ deaths, and the unending grief that follows.”
Julie Orringer reviewed the book for the NY Times (February 24, 2020) describing what Colum McCann accomplished in this unique, moving, beautifully written, and creative work. Towards the end of her review she wrote:
“Apeirogon” is an empathy engine, utterly collapsing the gulf between teller and listener. By replicating the messy nonlinear passage of time, by dealing in unexpected juxtapositions that reveal latent truths, it allows us to inhabit the interiority of human beings who are not ourselves. It achieves its aim by merging acts of imagination and extrapolation with historical fact. But it’s indisputably a novel, and, to my mind, an exceedingly important one. It does far more than make an argument for peace; it is itself, an agent of change.”
Read Julie Orringer’s excellent review and Colum McCann’s important novel.