February marked my 20-year anniversary of writing book reviews for The Free Lance–Star. If I think back to that long-ago time and reflect on my favorite authors, then versus now, there is one foremost name that has to be added to that list, and that would be Colum McCann.
McCann first came to my attention as an Irish short story writer. As my father once described him, he is a writer who paints with words. In the following decades, he has shown that he is a writer capable of soaring greatness and has offered up stories about subjects as varied as the gypsies of Europe to the Russian dancer Rudolf Nureyev. In 2009, he won the National Book Award for “Let the Great World Spin,” which is based in New York City in the 1970s. So McCann turning his sights on the conflict between Israel and Palestine may not be surprising, but the resulting novel, “Apeirogon,” is astounding.
Asking readers to pick a best book by a favorite author is often a fool’s errand, so I cannot state that “Apeirogon” is McCann’s best, but it is certainly his most important novel to date. The foundation of this book lies in the real-life story and friendship between Rami Elhanan and Bassam Aramin. Rami is a Jew and Bassam is Arab and a Palestinian. Their backgrounds and cultures dictate that they are supposed to despise each other. And when each man has a young daughter murdered by the other side, the embers of hatred should erupt into an all-consuming fire of vengeance. Instead, the murders unite the men in their lifelong effort to see the other side as human and brings them together to spread hope and love among the Israelis and Palestinians, which is not popular with the Israelis and Palestinians.
“Apeirogon” is a difficult book simply based on the subject matter and takes its title from a geometric shape with an infinite number of sides that could represent any number of symbolic statements on life or on the Middle East. McCann weaves in anecdotal references and stories into the narrative of Rami and Bassam and offers up so much background and information that I don’t know how he possibly had time to do any actual writing. The research and interviewing “Apeirogon” required had to have taken years and would be worthy of a “The Making of Apeirogon” documentary.
There are many takeaways from this novel, but the underlying message in McCann’s effort is there are people in the world who have eschewed hatred even when they have every reason to hate. There are people who want to see their imposed foes as humans. They simply desire peace in our time or in the time of their grandchildren, despite infinite sides.