Also About Birds: The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict in Colum McCann’s “Apeirogon”

By Ben LibmanFebruary 28, 2020

Also About Birds: The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict in Colum McCann’s “Apeirogon”

Apeirogon by Colum McCann

DID YOU KNOW that François Mitterand’s final meal was an ortolan, cooked whole — a traditional French dish thought to be so shameful to eat that the diner must cover his head with a napkin while chewing? Or that, when a suicide bomber activates his vest, his head usually separates from his body, a phenomenon known as the mushroom effect? Or that a frigatebird can stay aloft for two months without touching down?

Colum McCann wants to tell you these things. His latest novel, Apeirogon — named for a shape with a countably infinite number of sides — is a collection of these and other curiosities, made to ring intelligibly around a central narrative of anger, loss, compassion, and solidarity. It is a tale saturated with the mid-career ambition of a celebrated author. And when ambition is the word, one hopes to watch it dissolve behind something challenging, breathtaking, and maybe even new.

In The Origin of German Tragic Drama, Walter Benjamin wrote that “ideas are to objects as constellations are to stars.” He meant that the ideas that allow us to give meaning to objects and phenomena are no more present among those objects than constellations are among the stars above. Phenomena are fixed in place and time; the value of the idea, then, is that it is one plausible map to the objects of its consideration — a way of illuminating the relations between them.

This is, more or less, how McCann asks us to read Apeirogon. The plot itself is both simple and uncommon for the novel form. It tells the story of Bassam Aramin and Rami Elhanan — a Palestinian and an Israeli, respectively — who have both come to a similar position against the Israeli occupation of Palestine after losing their daughters to its senseless violence. Having spent seven years in prison for a failed grenade assault on IDF soldiers, Bassam is the walking image of the effects of the Occupation. He learns all too well how Israel forces Palestinians into a Hobson’s choice over their freedom. When he is released, he desires nothing more than to marry and have children, seeing in family the promise of a kind of liberty. His dream is proven a mirage when, at the age of 10, his daughter Abir is killed by an Israeli soldier shooting rubber bullets out of the back of a jeep.

Years before his daughter’s death, Rami, a descendent of a Holocaust survivor and a second-generation adoptee into an old Jerusalemite family, was an apolitical graphic designer. As a young man, he participated in the violence of the Yom Kippur War, and learned what it meant to kill someone. Years later, in 1997, his daughter Smadar was killed in a suicide bombing on Ben Yehuda Street, during the Second Intifada.

Importantly, Bassam and Rami are real people: the traumas they endure in the novel, their quests for revenge, and then justice, and then peace, have all really happened. They are still happening. The names of their wives, their children, the towns and cities in which they live, of the group for grieving parents which they attend, of the anti-Occupation political action group at which they first bonded — they are all real. Bassam and Rami came together in the wake of their trauma, and eventually teamed up as a public speaking duo; they continue to denounce the Occupation at public engagements across the globe. And so it’s appropriate that, as the author’s note preceding the novel tells us, McCann has learned about Rami and Bassam, and has merely introduced the novelist’s touch to their “words and worlds.”

The book draws its power from this vibrant and actually existing pair. But the true power of the novel lies in its practice of constellating. In a reference to The Arabian Nights, the book is structured as an arrangement of 1,001 narrative sections. Exactly midway through, the author disappears, giving way to Rami and Bassam’s own words (snippets of interviews and speeches they’ve given in real life); Apeirogon proceeds to build an archive of seemingly disparate facts, anecdotes, and myths around the story of these two “combatants for peace.”

Dozens of these fragments are devoted to conveying ornithological information. The novel often points to the image of the bird — and its indifference to the territorial squabbles of the human beings down below — as a guiding leitmotif. But we’re also treated to a vision of a blind Borges, wandering the streets of Israel and Palestine, listening to colorful tales and local myths over cups of coffee. We’re given images of pot-holed roads in the West Bank. We’re told of the origins of Zyklon B, of the terms “mayday” and “seelonce feenee,” of the M16 rifle, of the slingshot, of John Cage’s 4’33”, and of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Poems about love and death, tales about the rare falcon trade in Bethlehem, the acrobatic feats of Philippe Petit, a correspondence between Einstein and Freud, and a 19th-century missionary who undertook, foolishly, a dangerous journey from the Sea of Galilee to the Dead Sea via the River Jordan, are scattered throughout the text, interrupting the narratives of Rami and Bassam, Smadar and Abir.

The product is a busy arrangement of phenomena that are made to interact not only with the central plot, but also with each other. After learning of the ill-fated journey of the missionary, Christopher Costigan, we’re told that near a decade after his death, American explorer William Lynch named the northern extremity of El-Lisan peninsula after him, and fired a three-gun salute in his memory. Immediately following this, we read that “the Ben Yehuda Street bombs went off in three-second intervals.” What are we to make of this? The rhythm, the meter of that three-part explosion begins to resonate along that small slice of land, and across a vast stretch of time.

The work of the novel is to produce this kind of effect not once or twice, but dozens of times, giving rise to a sense of connectedness that one knows to be invented, but that manages, nevertheless, to cast the simplest and most clear-seeming events in a different light. The echo resounding from Abir’s and Smadar’s deaths, as captured by McCann, weaves a connective tissue that expands beyond the lives of the two friends, separated by a brutal occupation, and into the breadth and depth of the histories and geographies that are sedimented into the region.

McCann offers us several hints as to what he aims to achieve with this unconventional form. Late in the novel, there’s a nod to Philip Glass’s Einstein on the Beach, an experimental opera libretto that “uses short bursts of poetry, song, rhythm, solfège syllables, and instances of numerical repetition,” along with connective “knee plays” and intermezzos, to disrupt the conventional structures of plot. Elsewhere, he dedicates one of the final sections of the book to opera composer Viktor Ullmann, who once wrote that “the secret of every work of art was the annihilation of matter through form.”

These examples are suggestive of McCann’s aspirations; they are also illustrative of the limits of his reach. The opera, an interesting fixation for McCann, is a bounded, tightened form. Chaotic and unconventional though it may be, Einstein on the Beach still manages to contain itself within four acts. To annihilate matter through form requires power from the form. And in the cases alluded to, that power results from a masterful and creative appeal to form, precisely for its built-in constraints, with the intent of bringing something new into the world. Many poets still turn to the sonnet for a similar reason.

And it is here that Apeirogon’s check-engine lights start to flash. The structure that he has chosen — a constellation of a thousand and one mosaic-like segments — fails to provide the kind of pressure and heat needed for form to act as an artistic crucible. Many sections feel necessary, integral to the project, but one often feels that a section break was made arbitrarily, or that the inclusion of this or that detail functions as filler, a cosmetic addition whose purpose is merely to round out the count to 1,001. Nothing is forged, in such cases — nothing set ablaze in the manner of artistic epiphany. This cold slack results in several patches of the novel that manage to constellate only briefly, before spiraling out of reach and disintegrating from the whole.

There is also a palpable anxiety, on the part of the narrator, that the reader may miss something, or may not “get” it. This manifests as a kind of hand-holding that betrays the author’s lack of trust in his readers. We are told well into the novel, for instance, that in design school Rami had a fascination for shapes; the attentive reader needs little reminder — and certainly not for the fifth or sixth time in a novel with this choice of title — that an apeirogon is “a shape with a countably infinite number of sides.” And yet, this is precisely how McCann hits us over the head in the section that immediately follows.

It is also an anxiety at the level of poetics. McCann is often a beautiful writer: his sense of rhythm, alliteration, and assonance all emerge wonderfully in this book’s prose, as they do in Let the Great World Spin. He is also deft with metaphor and understands how to use juxtaposition to upend conventional perception. But at times he seems a bit too proud of his turn of phrase. He looks down, for instance, at the settlements around Jerusalem and notes how they come together in a perfect ring, “the rim of a tightening lung.” An impressive, if not breathtaking, image, which he should let stand. And yet, in a gesture one rarely sees from a poet, he feels the need to repeat the formulation, word for word, several times throughout the novel, often giving the rim of a tightening lung a numbered section all to itself. There is a kind of semantic bleaching here, and elsewhere, as some of McCann’s metaphors lose their strength, and their chance to demonstrate how well they might stand on their own.

That said, the novel remains potent, not least for its careful elucidation of Bassam’s and Rami’s heart-wrenching experiences. One begins to wonder, in fact, whether one needs the entire apparatus at all. These are real people, after all, their stories known and true. And when we reach the novel’s center, and are able to read for ourselves their doleful stories and thundering admonitions from their own mouths, it’s tempting to feel that this is all that was needed. Everything is there: the proof of the horrors of occupation, the bloodlust of revenge, the abyss of cyclical violence, the clarity of grief, the necessity of peace, and even a political program. The Occupation must stop, first, before we can discuss the rest. Could we not have taken their words, and left all the birds and slingshots and high-wire acts?

But then, who would have given us Rami and Bassam from without, with all the same tenderness, and the same richness of treatment? It helps to think of Apeirogon as the most far-reaching and spectacular (literally, spectacle-like) magazine profile you’ve ever read. It is researched down to impressive detail, and it is as clear-eyed about the Occupation as can be expected from someone who isn’t from either Israel or Palestine, an Irish writer who has clearly listened and learned well beyond his lot, before ever opening his mouth to speak. And that’s more than can be said about most of us who look on from an equivalent distance. What is most evident in this novel, hanging above it like a nimbus, is how deeply McCann cares — about Rami, Bassam, their families, and also about everyone still forced into the jaws of an unjust system. Also, about birds.

He knows that his cannot, and should not, be the final word on the matter. And so, he submits himself to a daunting problem, one with infinite sides, and attempts what appears to be a representative magnification: a few corners, a few points of contact testifying to something greater, something older, flying overhead.


Ben Libman is a writer from Montréal. He currently lives in California.

LARB Contributor

Ben Libman is a writer living in Montréal. He is currently a PhD student in English at Stanford University and a frequent contributor to Politics/Letters. Drop him a line at [email protected]. Find him on Twitter @benlibman.


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