Colum McCann has one message for anyone who thinks they've heard the story of Palestine and Israel countless times. Who don't need the reality of life in the Middle East to be explained by an award-winning Irish literary novelist peddling his new novel, Apeirogon.
“Please, let it dwell in the back of your mind for a little while,” he asks. “And please allow it to disrupt you. And then give it to others.”
The thing is, over the course of a very deliberate 1001 short chapters, McCann absolutely earns the right to make that plea. It's an astonishing novel, an intelligent yet open-hearted and compassionate work of art and politics, nature and friendship.
He knows that people have entrenched ideas about the settings and people he celebrates, mourns, depicts and ponders. We all have them. But its very title alone – apeirogon is a mathematical term for a shape with an infinite number of sides – that challenges us to think about the nuance of the conflict, its contradictions, its ironies and its pain.
At its heart are two real-life men – a Palestinian, Bassam Aramin, and an Israeli, Rami Elhanan. United by grief after their young daughters were killed (Rami's murdered by a suicide bomber and Bassam's shot dead by Israeli forces), they find some solace from these tragedies in each other.
"When I came upon the story of Rami and Bassam, I had to admit that I was confused by the politics of Israel and Palestine," McCann remembers. "Everything about their story intrigued me. I was completely taken by it. And I was terrified at the prospect of taking it on. I mean, terrified. What other conflict is as divisive as this one? How can a writer get in under the nature of all this and capture the mad vagaries of what's going on? I wanted to tell a story that anyone who knew nothing about the conflict could understand, but at the same time write it for people who absolutely understood the nuts and bolts. So it was an all-embracing form."
McCann likens the novel to conducting an orchestra, which makes a lot of sense. It’s not a typical narrative; the deaths of children Smadar and Amir are painfully, painstakingly picked apart but interspersed with Bassam and Rami’s own lives in Palestine and Israel, with sections on bird life, Philippe Petit’s famous high-wire walk across the Hinnom Valley in 1987, even falconry in the UAE.
It’s a fragmentary collage that goes off on seemingly endless tangents, and McCann admits that he had to work out of an inner recklessness to find this “compendium of human experience”. Heartbreakingly, the story always comes back to the young girls’ deaths.
“I don’t like writers complaining about the difficulty of writing,” he says. “Spare me. But allow me to contradict myself. It was tough. While I was writing it, I had no idea if it would work or not. I was flying blind and the book is a map of your head as much as it is a map of mine. You travel it, I travel it, we both slog on the cartography. So much of it was an accident at first, but they’re not tangents for the sake of being tangental. They hum together. ”
Which brings us to the elephant in the room; while there is an Arabic translation in the works, in the end, Apeirogon is the work of a white European writing about something seriously beyond his lived experience. There has been some great Palestinian literature in recent years, but does the Apeirogon have more visibility because McCann has been previously nominated for the Booker Prize? How does this play out for him?
“Oh gosh, yes let’s talk about that one,” he says. “First the obvious: cultural appropriation is a very real thing. We – and let me say, mea culpa – often go into places we shouldn’t go and we condescend. We patronise. We steal. We mock. We take advantage. We don’t think. We don’t stretch. We don’t see past our own noses. This is quite patently wrong. If our intention is to take away from another culture, then it is wrong, plain and simple, and we deserve to be called out on it.
“If, however, we are talking about cultural celebration – where we go in to learn, to share, to deepen, to shed light – then that’s a different story. We go in with humility. We go in with grace. We go in saying, ‘I’m confused, please teach me’. We go somewhere because we know we are not full enough, or big enough, or bright enough. And we get kicked around a little by the truth. And we somehow come out the far end a little wiser and a little bruised hopefully. Cultural appropriation is colonial. Cultural celebration is communal.”
And that’s why McCann’s fruitful relationship with Rami and Bassam is so crucial. He says he’s aware of what people could say, but because the men are “with me every step of the way” in sharing their stories, they all feel comfortable with the book. And that includes how it will play out financially for them – although McCann says their purpose is “deeper than money or fame or any of that sparkly stuff. There’s a story there that quite frankly deepens the world”.
So how are Rami and Bassam now?
“Oh they’re amazing,” he says. “I went to dinner with them last night. I saw Rami struggling to get his jacket off and Bassam just yanked the sleeve and then patted his friend on the back and they laughed and laughed. They are amazing men. And they have a deep, deep purpose to their lives. They are basically saying, We need to know one another.”
It's an image to cheer the heart and a metaphor for the idea behind Apeirogon. It feels glib somehow to say a work of literary fiction could change the world. But it also feels that if everyone read this book, maybe the world wouldn't be quite so polarised.
"That is saying a lot and I thank you most sincerely," he says. "And I know I have to be very careful. Humility is the key here. The most important thing for me now is to let the book work on others. It has to allow people to think differently. It cannot be didactic. It cannot propose a solution in itself. But it can propose a solution that can arise from others."
McCann cites the example of Greta Thunberg. A character like that in the context of Israel and Palestine could, he thinks, make a difference.
“Why not? And they don’t have to be 15 years old by the way. They can be 95 and somehow turn things around.
“It can happen.”
Apeirgon (Bloomsbury) is out now