‘Apeirogon’ is a feat of grief and storytelling

Monday, November 2, 2020 - 5:23pm

NOSELL

Random House

If written differently, “Apeirogon” by Colum McCann would feel like a burden. It is, after all, a commitment of over 450 pages of heart-wrenching content, based on the true story of two fathers who lost their young daughters to senseless violence arising from the Israeli-Palestine conflict. By no stretch of the imagination is it an easy read. Truthfully, it is a near-constant barrage of complex emotions and heartbreaking depictions of grief. It is saved from the abyss of lengthy sad books, however, by virtue of its important and touching subject matter as well as its author’s talent. McCann makes this journey manageable — moving without being overwhelming. He breaks it into over one thousand “chapters,” which range from being one sentence to several pages long. Some of the chapters aren’t prose at all, but instead are a photo, or a fourth grade report card, or a sound wave, or a transcription of a rap song, or simply a blank space. 

The inventive, fragmented format of McCann’s novel provides a useful framework for the storytelling as well. Rather than chronologically biographizing Bassam and Rami, the respective Palestinian and Israeli fathers who lost their daughters, McCann instead decides to build the story almost like a puzzle. He offers the reader little bits of information here and there, most in morsels of “chapters” that are only a few sentences long, until the reader has pieced it together. This storytelling is absolutely masterful and is a literary feat in and of itself, deft prose and difficult subject matter aside. Most authors would fail to tell a story this way — it would become confusing, convoluted and twisted. McCann achieves this feat in a way that the reader doesn’t even realize until the end, when McCann has already managed to craft an entire tale with no more than a few pages at a time of consistent, chronological narration. The pieces of the story, spanning decades, collect themselves until they form a cohesive narrative right under our noses.

McCann jumps from chapter to chapter in a nearly manic way, with his work functioning more like a poem than a novel in some places. He can transition from an article mentioning the word “Requiem” to talking about a performance of the musical piece at a concentration camp to talking about the piece itself, and it all seems to make sense. But he doesn’t make it easy for you. The book is heavy with meaning, every page dripping with it. This is not a casual read, and McCann never takes his foot off the gas. 

The only way this fragmented storytelling could work is with McCann’s varied and intricate writing style. He manages to maintain a beautiful, poetic voice throughout the novel, while breaking up the monotony of a long book by varying his style greatly. Perhaps the most impressive part of this variation in writing style is that McCann’s authorial voice remains constant throughout. Even when several pages are about types of birds, or a list of bodies of water, or a description of the philosophy of an ancient mathematician, the central vein of the story remains constant, with McCann’s writing as its driving force. His prose is best described as poetic, containing magical phrases such as “The cigarettes were tied on long pieces of dental floss and in the dark they looked like small universes pulsing,” and “He would look at them and recognize the grief carried within them like clocks.” Amid the horrifying violence of the Israeli-Palestine conflict he describes and the emotional turmoil of the people in his story, McCann achieves poetry. 

Other motifs thread the fragments of the narrative together, mostly in the form of metaphorical language. Art and beauty are often contrasted starkly with violence, as when Rami describes the war, saying “Streaks of bomblight went across the sky, an aurora borealis. He thought of the war afterwards as a sort of awful artwork: the stretchers went in white and came out red.” One of the most poignant of these contrasts is McCann’s constant return to the stars — “nailheaded stars,” “the stars shone their shrapnel above him,” “the stars bulletholed above him.” The violent descriptive language used to describe a phenomenon so universally peaceful serves as a reminder of the ways that art, beauty and violence collide in Israel and Palestine. The same stars shining above both Bassam and Rami, above both Israelis and Palestinians, are described in warlike terms. McCann suggests, then, that the political and military conflict has so seeped into this area that it permeates the very night sky; even the most simple and beautiful things have the potential to be violent. 

McCann, above all, makes a statement with his book about unity, grief, friendship, family and peace in the midst of the bloody Israeli-Palestine conflict. He tells a story of two men united in grief over losing their daughters, overcoming hatred of their supposed enemy to come to a shared understanding and deep friendship. For Rami, “He was Israeli. A shameful and powerful thing to be”; for Bassam, “He was Palestinian. Waiting was a matter of spirit. There was perseverance in the refusal of defeat”; and for both of them, a strong belief that “all walls were destined to fall, no matter what.” This is not to suggest naivete of “believ[ing] that more would not be built,” because “it was a world of walls.” Instead, the men simply know that it is their mission “to insert a crack in the one most visible,” which is exactly what McCann does in this novel. This is his crack in the wall.

Daily Arts Writer Emilia Ferrante can be reached at emiliajf@umich.edu.

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