Like Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood” and Norman Mailer’s “The Executioner’s Song,” “Apeirogon” by Colum McCann is a non-fiction novel, a genre defined as depicting real historical figures and actual events woven together with fictitious conversations and using the storytelling techniques of fiction.
At its heart, “Apeirogon” tells the true stories of Rami, a Jewish graphic arts designer and Bassam, a Palestinian Muslim activist. These men’s lives were drawn together after their daughters were killed, Rami’s by a Palestinian suicide bomber, Bassam’s by an 18-year-old Israeli security force soldier. The deaths of their daughters, one decade apart, lead both fathers to a support group for parents who have lost children to the violence endemic in the Near East.
Within this group the two fathers, who by their ethnicity and religion should have been hostile toward one another, grew together in shared grief and in shared commitment to countering the cultural and political forces that led to their daughters’ deaths. Since the early days of the 21st Century they have traveled the world together, sharing their stories in the hope of ending the bloodshed in Israel and Palestine.
“Apeirogon” is unconventional in its structure. At its physical center are narratives crafted from the words of the two protagonists, words that represent their presentations to any audiences willing to listen. Leading up to and away from these central chapters are 1,000 smaller scenes, some only one sentence long, a few consisting of a photograph or graphic. Each vignette opens another small window into the complex stories of the protagonists’ grief as well as the history of the conflict.
Some of these sketches include the identification and flight paths of migratory birds in the eastern Mediterranean, detailed description of the caves of Hebron that were the homes of countless displaced Palestinians, accounts from numerous angles of Bassam’s seven years in an Israeli prison, and far too many more to recount in detail.
The stitching together of these seemingly random bits of information accounts for the book’s title. The geometric definition of an apeirogon is a shape with an infinitely countable number of sides, on initial inspection resembling a circle, but if examined closely found to be made up of a vast number of connected straight lines. The title reflects the author’s conviction that Rami and Bassam’s stories, microcosms of the current state of the Near East, have been shaped by innumerable interconnected factors.
On initial reading some may find these brief additions to the central narrative confusing and distracting. But for the reader who perseveres, McCann’s novel may offer new perspectives on the troubles facing Israel and Palestine. This is not a novel for everyone, but for those who find their way through to its conclusion it should prove to be a rewarding and enlightening experience.