From celebrated Irish writer Colum McCann comes a dazzling new novel set in Occupied Palestine and Israel. In an astonishing act of the imagination, McCann illuminates the political situation that has riven the region for more than seventy years in a completely new light. Using a fascinating blend of real events and people, he fictionalizes their stories. As the author says, “This 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.”
McCann tells the story of Bassam Aramin, a Palestinian, and Rami Elhanan, an Israeli, and how they came together after the terrible loss of both of their daughters, one to suicide bombers and the other to Israeli police. Parents from both sides who have lost loved ones gather together in a Parents Circle to tell their stories, to heal, and to never forget their unimaginable losses.
Deploying a myriad of seemingly unrelated historical, cultural and biographical snapshots, this highly original and inventive novel reframes the never-ending Israeli–Palestinian conflict. The result is a breath-taking narrative based on events that actually happened.
McCann says, “Bassam and Rami have allowed me to shape and reshape their worlds. Despite these liberties, I hope to remain true to the actual realities of their shared experiences.”
Apeirogon is a completely mesmerizing novel. Driven by a compelling voice, Colum McCann has written a powerful and haunting narrative that is simply masterful in its universal implications.
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About the Author
COLUM McCANN is the author of five novels and two collections of stories. He has won numerous awards for his work, including the Pushcart Prize, the Rooney Prize, the Hennessy Award for Irish Literature and the Hughes & Hughes Novel of the Year award. His short film Everything in This Country Must was nominated for an Oscar. His fiction has been published in over thirty languages and has appeared in the New Yorker, the Atlantic Monthly, GQ, the Paris Review and Bomb, among other publications. His novel Let the Great World Spin won the National Book Award for Fiction and the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. McCann lives in New York with his wife, Allison, and their three children. He teaches in the MFA program at Hunter College. Visit his website at www.colummccann.com.
Read an Excerpt
The hills of Jerusalem are a bath of fog. Rami moves by memory through a straight stretch, and calculates the camber of an upcoming turn.
Sixty-seven years old, he bends low on the motorbike, his jacket padded, his helmet clipped tight. It is a Japanese bike, 750 cc. An agile machine for a man his age.
Rami pushes the bike hard, even in bad weather.
He takes a sharp right at the gardens where the fog lifts to reveal dark. Corpus separatum. He downshifts and whips past a military tower. The sodium lights appear fuzzy in the morning. A small flock of birds momentarily darkens the orange.
At the bottom of the hill the road dips into another curve, obscured in fog. He taps down to second, lets out the clutch, catches the corner smoothly and moves back up to third. Road Number One stands above the ruins of Qalunya: all history piled here.
He throttles at the end of the ramp, takes the inner lane, passing signs for The Old City, for Giv’at Ram. The highway is a scattershot of morning headlights.
He leans left and salmons his way out into the faster lane, toward the tunnels, the Separation Barrier, the town of Beit Jala. Two answers for one swerve: Gilo on one side, Bethlehem on the other.
Geography here is everything.
THIS ROAD LEADS TO AREA “A”
UNDER THE PALESTINIAN AUTHORITY
THE ENTRANCE FOR ISRAELI
CITIZENS IS FORBIDDEN
DANGEROUS TO YOUR LIVES
AND IS AGAINST THE ISRAELI LAW
Five hundred million birds arc the sky over the hills of Beit Jala every year. They move by ancient ancestry: hoopoes, thrushes, flycatchers, warblers, cuckoos, starlings, shrikes, ruffs, northern wheatears, plovers, sunbirds, swifts, sparrows, nightjars, owls, gulls, hawks, eagles, kites, cranes, buzzards, sandpipers, pelicans, flamingos, storks, pied bushchats, griffon vultures, European rollers, Arabian babblers, bee-eaters, turtledoves, whitethroats, yellow wagtails, blackcaps, red-throated pipits, little bitterns.
It is the world’s second busiest migratory superhighway: at least four hundred different species of birds torrent through, riding different levels in the sky. Long vees of honking intent. Sole travelers skimming low over the grass.
Every year a new landscape appears underneath: Israeli settlements, Palestinian apartment blocks, rooftop gardens, barracks, barriers, bypass roads.
Some of the birds migrate at night to avoid predators, flying in their sidereal patterns, elliptic with speed, devouring their own muscles and intestines in flight. Others travel during the day to take advantage of the thermals rising from below, the warm wind lifting their wings so they can coast.
At times whole flocks block out the sun and daub shadows across Beit Jala: the fields, the steep terraces, the olive groves on the outskirts of town.
Lie down in the vineyard in the Cremisan monastery at any time of day and you can see the birds overhead, travelling in their talkative lanes.
They land on trees, telegraph poles, electricity cables, water towers, even the rim of the Wall, where they are a sometime target for the young stone throwers.
The ancient sling was made of a cradle of cowskin, the size of an eye-patch, pierced with small holes and held together with leather thongs. The slings were designed by shepherds to help scare away predatory animals from their roving flocks.
The pouch was held in the shepherd’s left hand, the cords in his right. Considerable practice was needed to operate it with accuracy. After placing a stone in the pad, the slingman pulled the thongs taut. He swung it wide above his head several times until the moment of natural release. The pouch opened and the stone flew. Some shepherds could hit a target the size of a jackal’s eye from two hundred paces.
The sling soon made its way into the art of warfare: its capacity to fire up a steep slope and battlement walls made it critical in assaults on fortified cities. Legions of long-range slingmen were employed. They wore full body armor and rode chariots piled with stone. When the territory became impassible—moats, trenches, dry desert gulches, steep embankments, boulders strewn across the roads—they descended and went on foot, ornamental bags slung over their shoulders. The deepest held up to two hundred small stones.
In preparation for battle it was common to paint at least one of the stones. The talisman was placed at the bottom of the bag when the slingman went to war, in the hope he would never reach his final stone.
At the edges of battle, children—eight, nine, ten years old—were enlisted to shoot birds from the sky. They waited by wadis, hid in desert bushes, fired stones from fortified walls. They shot turtledoves, quail, songbirds.
Some of the birds were captured still living. They were gathered up and put into wooden cages with their eyes gouged out so that they would be fooled into thinking that it was a permanent nighttime: then they would gorge themselves on grain for days on end.
Fattened to twice their flying size, they were baked in clay ovens, served with bread, olives and spices.
Eight days before he died, after a spectacular orgy of food, François Mitterrand, the French president, ordered a final course of ortolan, a tiny yellow-throated songbird no bigger than his thumb. The delicacy represented to him the soul of France.
Mitterrand’s staff supervised the capture of the wild birds in a village in the south. The local police were paid off, the hunting was arranged, and the birds were captured, at sunrise, in special finely threaded nets along the edge of the forest. The ortolans were crated and driven in a darkened van to Mitterrand’s country house in Latche where he had spent his childhood summers. The sous-chef emerged and carried the cages indoors. The birds were fed for two weeks until they were plump enough to burst, then held by their feet over a vat of pure Armagnac, dipped headfirst and drowned alive.
The head chef then plucked them, salted them, peppered them, and cooked them for seven minutes in their own fat before placing them in a freshly heated white cassole.
When the dish was served, the wood-paneled room—with Mitterrand’s family, his wife, his children, his mistress, his friends—fell silent. He sat up in his chair, pushed aside the blankets from his knees, took a sip from a bottle of vintage Château Haut-Marbuzet.
—The only interesting thing is to live, said Mitterrand.
He shrouded his head with a white napkin to inhale the aroma of the birds and, as tradition dictated, to hide the act from the eyes of God. He picked up the songbirds and ate them whole: the succulent flesh, the fat, the bitter entrails, the wings, the tendons, the liver, the kidney, the warm heart, the feet, the tiny headbones crunching in his teeth.
It took him several minutes to finish, his face hidden all the time under the white serviette. His family could hear the sounds of the bones snapping.
Mitterrand dabbed the napkin at his mouth, pushed aside the earthenware cassole, lifted his head, smiled, bid good night and rose to go to bed.
He fasted for the next eight and a half days until he died.
In Israel, the birds are tracked by sophisticated radar set up along the migratory routes all over the country—Eilat, Jerusalem, Latrun—with links to military installations and to the air traffic control offices at Ben Gurion airport.
The Ben Gurion offices are high-tech, dark-windowed. Banks of computers, radios, phones. A team of experts, trained in aviation and mathematics, tracks the patterns of flight: the size of the flocks, their pathways, their shape, their velocity, their height, their projected behavior in weather patterns, their possible response to crosswinds, siroccos, storms. Operators create algorithms and send out emergency warnings to the controllers and to the commercial airlines.
Another hotline is dedicated to the Air Force. Starlings at 1,000 feet north of Gaza Harbor, 31.52583°N, 34.43056°E. Forty-two thousand sandhill cranes roughly 750 feet over southern edge of Red Sea, 20.2802°N, 38.5126°E. Unusual flock movement east of Akko, Coast Guard caution, storm pending. Projected flock, Canada geese, east of Ben Gurion at 0200 hours, exact coordinates TBD. Pair of pharaoh eagle-owls reported in trees near helicopter landing pad B, south Hebron, 31.3200°N, 35.0542°E.
The ornithologists are busiest in autumn and spring when the large migrations are in full flow: at times their screens look like Rorschach tests. They liaise with bird-watchers on the ground, although a good tracker can intuit the type of bird just by the shape of the flock on the radar and the height at which it is coming in.
In military school, fighter pilots are trained in the intricate patterns of bird migration so they can avoid tailspins in what they call the plague zones. Everything matters: a large puddle near the runway might attract a flock of starlings; an oil patch might slicken the wings of a bird of prey, disorienting it; a forest fire might throw a flock of geese far off course.
In migratory seasons the pilots try not to travel for extended periods at lower than three thousand feet.
A swan can be as fatal to the pilot as a rocket-propelled grenade.
Apeirogan is told in a series of segments, ranging from a chapter's length, to a single sentence and numbered first from one to 500, then 1001, then backwards from 500 down to one. And in between snippets about Middle Eastern birds and vignettes about various historical events, science tidbits and folk tales lies the story of two men, Rami Elahanan and Bassam Aramin. Colum McCann isn't creating a story here, but recounting real events about living people, but using his immense skills as a novelist to approach the heart of the matter, not with a recounting of events, although that is part of this book, but a portrait of a friendship and a partnership between a Palestinian and a Jewish Israeli, both of whom had daughters who were killed, Smadar and Abir, one by a Palestinian suicide bomber as she shopped on a busy market street with friends, one by a rubber bullet aimed by an Israeli soldier as she walked back to school after buying candy. Both men work tirelessly towards a peace that often seems impossible. And their own histories are fascinating. Rami is the son-in-law of a founding member of the Knesset and a man who tried to live outside of the conflicts of the Israeli state, before having to put his life into working towards a peace although simply opposing the Occupation makes him a traitor in the eyes of many of his fellow citizens. And Bassam was imprisoned as a teenager as a terrorist, learned Hebrew while incarcerated and became a scholar of the Holocaust. The death of his daughter happened years into his involvement with the peace movement and he didn't hesitate to continue with that work despite that and the constant danger he faces simply moving regularly between Jerusalem and the West Bank. Surprisingly, this isn't a preachy book, although there is a clear point of view. It's gorgeously told and so well-constructed, with the central sections being led up to and then the hinge on which the remainder of the book rests. Towards the beginning of this book, I worried that the sheer skill and beauty of the writing were preventing an emotional connection. By the middle, I no longer thought that. McCann has written a book that serves his subject matter well.
Author Colum McCann sought to render onto paper what he perceived as a living breathing human in the Mideast of the 21st Century. His challenge was to share widely what was already overblown and misunderstood; he has created a masterpiece. His book is based around twin concepts that are remarkable and fascinating: a mathematical concept, with infinite sides approaching a circle, and The Thousand and One Nights, folks tales known everywhere and authored by everyone. He references the concept that the 1001 Tales ‘were already an intricate part of humankind’s unconscious memory.’ As is Israel and its troubles today. McCann takes two real people, with terrible, painful stories, and weaves them together to form a whole tale. In between he tells numerous bits and pieces that fill out their world, as well as ours. He transforms our knowledge into something more, both infinitely more painful but vastly more alive. It is an act of bravery to speak of these things, to write them down, and yes, to read the entire book. This is how the world is changed he hopes, his protagonists believe, and I also, hope. This is a masterpiece. I received my copy from the publisher through NetGalley. Deep gratitude.
Extraordinary! Truly masterful writing. This novel will probably be my favorite book of the entire year. I am Jewish, have several Arab friends, and have spent a lot of time in Israel so this book captured my attention when I first heard about it. The novel is based on the true story of a friendship between an Israeli father and a Palestinian father; a friendship, between two men who were raised to hate each other, formed from the shared grief of two fathers. Rami Elhanan’s 13-year-old daughter was killed by a suicide bomber; Bassam Aramin’s 10-year-old daughter killed by a rubber bullet. Apeirogon - a shape with a countably infinite number of sides. This so aptly describes the complexity of the Israeli-Palestinian situation. McCann presents the heartbreaking story of these two men with sensitivity and compassion and leaves us with a slight glimmer of hope. Written in fragments, instead of chapters, I got the sense of snapshots of the reality of life in Israel – a kaleidoscope of fragments coming together and shifting, morphing from one reality to another, constantly changing, yet remaining the same. (Note: The movie rights for this book have already been purchased by Steven Spielberg’s company Amblin.)
This was a difficult read for me in many ways. It is hard to read for both subject matter and the style of reading. The writing is a stream of conscious that flits around. Some chapters are extremely short and some aren't. The chapters shift from an Israeli who has lost his young daughter to senseless violence to a Palestine who lost his young daughter to senseless violence to a support group they both belong to. If that's not confusing enough there are chapters about birds thrown in. The subject matter is difficult and daily life is so hard. Even harder is the description of life in a death camp in WWII (reminding me why I am boycotting WWII books- I just can't take it). There are descriptions of people matching bones to put a skeleton together that was just awful. One of the most troubling sections to me was how they caught falcons with doves as decoys. I did find the information about the lady who make hoods for falcons quite interesting. She even has a pool in the shape of a falcon hood. This is a beautifully written book that is so important but please be aware that it's hard. It's very very hard. I can't seem to shake it. I guess that's the sign of it's greatness. But I need something light and frothy now. Thanks to Net Galley for a copy of this book in exchange for a fair review and most importantly, to Colum McCann for writing such a moving and intense book.
4.5 Stars Apeirogon — a shape with a countably infinite number of sides — shares the stories of those living through the conflict between Palestine and Israel, through two families whose outlooks and lives were changed when the lives of their two daughters were taken on what began as ordinary days, and ended with two families grieving their loss. The journey that brought them together through their grieving was not an immediate one, or an easy one, but a worthwhile one in the end. Through sharing their stories of the loss of their daughters, they were more able to see these infinite sides to each other’s story, which led to understanding, and a friendship. Based on the lives of real people, Rami Elhanan who is Israeli and his daughter, Smadar, and Bassam Aramin who is Palestinian and his daughter, Abir. Abir was ten years old when a rubber bullet ended her life, Smadar was thirteen. While the feelings of the mothers of Smadar and Abir are shared, the focus is on their fathers, how they met, and how they helped each other find some degree of peace. The format of this story is somewhat unconventional; it flits back and forth through time as different memories are recalled in one thousand segments that vary in length. Several range from being as short as three words to a sentence or two, one segment has no words, and others are more conventionally chapter length – if short chapters. Some include photographs or quotes from notable figures – some political, others offer varying perspectives. These segments begin at one, go to five hundred, and then back down to one, offering a more encompassing view of the ways these lives were personally affected, their journeys to a beginning of a sense of personal peace, and a broader view of both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. A heartbreaking story about love, loss, conflict and life, with a heartfelt plea for peace. Many thanks for the ARC provided by Random House Group – Random House