‘Apeirogon’ Colum McCann
Penguin Random House
What do most of us expect from a novel? Probably first and foremost we expect a story, and a fictional story: an invented narrative with a beginning, a middle and an end; that introduces us to a collection of characters we know aren’t real, but hope will be shown and described to us so well that we imagine they could be. That takes us through some kind of journey, from set-up to crisis to resolution, which makes us feel concern for the characters we have come to care about, and either allays or confirms our concerns in a way that, by the end of the tale, we feel is inevitable – or, if not totally inevitable, at least a completely plausible end-point to a particular set of circumstances.
Colum McCann’s ‘Apeirogon’ confidently proclaims itself to be such a thing as this on its front cover. It is titled ‘Apeirogon – A Novel’.
But right at the outset it contradicts itself. We are told in the author’s note that ‘the driving forces’ of this novel – the Israeli Rami Elhanan and the Palestinian Bassam Aramin – are real, and that their stories have been told before already, ‘well documented in film and print’. Not fictional, not invented, not new.
With this, ’Apeirogon’ immediately sets up a contradiction that it will sustain – brilliantly – for the remainder of its 457 pages, and 1001 numbered sections. Colum McCann, in his acknowledgements section, calls it a ‘hybrid novel’, but I think it might better be described as an anti-novel, or even an exploded novel – a form that is uniquely appropriate to the stories of its protagonists, and the appalling circumstances from which their stories have arisen.
An apeirogon is a shape with a countably infinite number of sides. ‘Apeirogon’ is structured as a sequence of numbered sections. These sections may be 2 or 3 pages long, or only a paragraph, or a sentence. A section may follow logically from a previous section, or it may not. There is an implied symmetry, with the first half numbered from 1 – 500, and the second half numbered from 500 – 1. In the centre is section 1,001.
It begins as you might expect a novel about two men to begin – with one of them, Rami, on a motorbike journey. But we aren’t going to find out where Rami is going until 30 pages, and 63 numbered sections later.
In the meantime, ‘Apeirogon’ takes us on a series of left-turns, into the patterns of migratory birds over Israel-Palestine; President Francois Mitterand’s last meal of ortolans (a small songbird traditionally eaten whole); the sophisticated radar system the Israeli air force has set up to track birds; the history of rubber bullets, one of which killed Bassam’s daughter, Abir.
At every point in ‘Apeirogon’, McCann wants us to slow down. There is to be no racing ahead here, to get to the meat of the story, the plot development. He deliberately avoids providing any of the traditional sign-posts by which a reader might orient themselves in a story. Knowing where you are in the occupied West Bank is at one and the same time critically important, and also confusing – are you in zone A, B, or C, each of which has different permissions depending on whether you are Israeli or Palestinian, with different consequences arising from that?
And the length of time journeys take is very different for Israelis and Palestinians. This is a central factor in the story of Bassam’s daughter, Abir, critically injured by a rubber bullet, and whose ambulance is held up for hours – whether justifiably or not is never entirely clear.
Stories, and the function they perform, is a central theme of ‘Apeirogon’. McCann has chosen his structure of 1,001 numbered sections as a conscious reference to the structure of ‘The Arabian Nights’ – the exemplar of the story as delaying tactic, Scheherazade cheating death night after night with yet another instalment of a story that never quite ends by dawn.
In contrast to Scheherezade’s endless stringing out, the plain facts of both Bassam’s and Rami’s stories are made known to us early on in the book, and it is made clear to us that they retell their stories over and over again to different audiences, anyone who will listen. This is what they do with their days – they get up, travel somewhere to tell their stories, tell those stories, and go home. This is the entire plot of ‘Apeirogon’, if it were to be laid out simply. Two men go somewhere, tell a story each, and go home. And McCann lays it out precisely like this in section 1,001 at the centre of the book.
And yet the stories that link to Bassam’s and Rami’s stories are boundless – stories about language, animals, politicians, explorers, stories about history, and stories about stories. McCann continually takes us out and back, out and back, each time illuminating the stories of these men, and the stories they tell, from a slightly different angle each time.
‘Apeirogon’ disrupts so many conventions of the novel that it could completely fail to work. But for this reviewer at any rate, it succeeds beyond measure thanks to its empathy, curiosity and dedication to making connections. At its heart is its portrayal of the two protagonists – Rami and Bassam, and the journey they both choose to take, from living unexamined to examined lives. Both of them could have allowed their personal tragedies to harden them into extreme positions on either side of the Israeli-Palestine conflict, but they did not. They chose to try and understand.
McCann says that the root of the word apeirogon, which means ‘limitless shape’ or ‘boundless shape’, comes from the Proto-Indo-European word ‘per’, meaning ‘risk’. ‘Apeirogon’ is a triumphantly risky book about the kind of risk we could all be called upon to take, if our circumstances were just a little bit different.