One would have to have to be stonehearted not to have pity for any author releasing a book this year and, in particular, one which deals with the Israeli-Palestinian struggle, now bogged down in disputes as to how to handle coronavirus with justice. Events have rapidly overtaken Colum McCann’s latest novel, ‘Apeirogon’ (Bloomsbury), which he writes in his cover notes is a “hybrid novel with invention at its core, a work of storytelling which, like all storytelling, weaves together elements of speculation, memory, fact and imagination”.
Note well that “fact and imagination”. Accordingly, the writer throws the reader into the lives of real people and real horror but allows himself the freedom “to shape and reshape their words and their worlds”. That is both ambitious and more than a little difficult to navigate. Then add in the question as to whether or not a Dublin writer, now resident in New York, will be able to contribute something imaginative about this area which will be better than its own writers: Amos Oz, David Grossman; Eshkol Nevo; Sayed Kashua; Mourid Barghouti or Naguib Mahfouz, among others.
It is a big challenge but one which McCann is perfectly entitled to undertake. After all, writers are imaginative beings and if he can bring something of value to the reader, and something that is believable, then let’s have it.
In an Irish context, a parallel would be with the American writer, Lionel Shriver. She spent many years in Belfast and her novella, ‘The Subletter’, is a first-class example of how an intelligent and thoughtful writer can wring something vital and illuminating out of a very fractious place that is not native to her.
Still, McCann is not off to a good start with the book’s title, ‘Apeirogon: a novel’. It is unnecessarily obtuse. The book, sorry, “this epic novel”, is named for “a shape with a countably infinite number of sides”. Even after reading the explanation, many will not be sure what that is.
Yes, reviewers are supposed to know everything – they do not – but no-one, reader or reviewer, wants to think of themselves as being, well, thick. (And “countably”?)
Still, this is a substantial book in pages, over 450, that “crosses centuries and continents, stitching time, art, history, nature and politics into a tapestry of friendship, love, loss and belonging”. The reader is also promised something that is “musical, muscular, delicate and soaring” which, even for a blurb, is grandiose.
Taking as his starting point the violent deaths of two real young girls – one Israeli, Smadar, and one Palestinian, Abir – McCann attempts to create a narrative about the actual friendship that developed between their two grieving fathers, Rami Elhanan and Bassam Aramin (pictured), and has done so with their blessing. This then is fiction that is based on fact; a re-imagining of real death and is a profoundly unsettling undertaking for any reader. How it counts as fiction, as a novel, even a hybrid novel, is something this reader found difficult to understand. Were it a television programme, it would undoubtedly be classed as a ‘docu-drama’.
In a long series of short chapters and lines, McCann charts the physical landscape of Israel and Palestine and the psychological toll it exacts on its inhabitants. “Geography here is everything”, the author reminds us as he lists various zones and their restrictions, depending on whether you are Israeli or Palestinian. While effectively describing the areas, the overall effect is quite leaden. McCann, thanks to research visits to the region, is very apt at providing detailed lists and observations but he does not manage to distil that often enough into fiction that flies.
The constant short chapters read like something from a guide book – “Five hundred million birds arc the sky over the hills of Beit Jala every year” and he iterates the flocks exhaustively. Yet the detailed knowledge never translates into something more substantial.
Worse, McCann’s habit of offering up little lines here and there jars more often than it enlightens. There are good lines in the text – “The highway is a scattershot of morning headlights” – but there are too many lonely lines that hang meaninglessly as stand-alone ‘chapters’ – “A swan can be as fatal to the pilot as a rocket-propelled grenade”; “Rami’s licence plate is yellow” or “The rim of a tightening lung” – which often give the impression of being a poor man’s aphorism after Nassim Taleb. The text is also interspersed with small photographs or illustrations, a Sebald-like gambit to provide more authenticity.
The violence of the young girls’ deaths, and their aftermath, are clinically described: “The bullet that killed Abir travelled fifteen metres through the air before it smashed into the back of her head…” and “… the splattered tablecloths, the severed torso of one of the bombers like a Greek statue-piece in the middle of the street”.
It is, to be honest, a description that could have been written about many scenes in the North over the years. Abir is killed by a rubber bullet. McCann tells us were fired from M-16s and “were first tested in Northern Ireland…”. That is wrong. The rubber bullets in the North were fired from a weapon that resembled a single-barrelled, sawn-off shotgun and were solid rubber the size of a man’s fist.
(Indeed, a young girl was killed by one in the area of Belfast where this writer grew up, which underpins the fact that you do not have to go to the Middle East to find such tragedies.)
No-one could fault McCann’s engagement with his subject and his honest attempts to portray a very dangerous and divided region. Regrettably, the whole things smacks of “if this, then that” sort of writing. One is not looking for McCann to take sides but just to say something, to free his inner Houellebecq. But then to do that, McCann would have to have a story to tell, his story, and a definite point of view that might offend some readers and excite others.
Pól Ó Muirí is a freelance journalist and writer