The last sentence of the fist chapter says it all. “Geography here is everything”. Geography here in this part of the world can get you killed. If you are in the wrong place at the wrong time, if you are in a zone where restrictions say you cannot go. Even by accident, yes, geography can get you killed.
There are signs everywhere to help prevent this happening. Signs that are expected in some way to reduce the killings. Surely, it’s as simple as sticking to your designated areas. Do not cross the line, do not threaten the peace.
Five hundred million birds arc the sky over the hills of Beit Jala every year. It almost seems they are mocking the people far below. Nothing restricts them, they migrate and fly where they must. If they are killed it will be by some accident, or maybe a predator. The one thing it will not be from, is from hate. Hate is reserved for us. Why are these people not allowed in this zone? Because we hate them? Why do you hate them? Because we have always hated them?
This is the story of two men, one an Israeli, Rami Elhanan, and one a Palestinian, Bassam Aramin.
This novel is about the conflict between two different peoples, two different cultures, two different religions, and the realisation, that in truth, there is no difference. Why does this conflict rage on, and the innocent suffer?
Both men’s lives are shattered, irrevocably changed, when they lose a child. Bassam loses his beloved Abir when she, at the age of ten is hit in the back of the head by an Israeli rubber bullet, a form of ammunition that is supposed to be non-fatal. Rami lost his thirteen-year-old daughter, Smadar, killed by suicide bombers.
“Abir. From the ancient Arabic. The perfume. The fragrance of the flower”.
“From the Song of Solomon. The grapevine. The opening of the flower.”
Two different cultures, two different religions, two different peoples, two innocent lives lost forever. Two men living with the same one irreplaceable loss.
In this part of the world, things like this happen every day, but this knowledge is no help to the men. There is nothing that can be said or done to assuage the men’s grief. The culprit, the source of the pain, the interminable, indelible hatred between the two cultures. The oppression of one over the other.
McCann assails the reader with vast amounts of military information which he uses in contrast, juxtaposing theses passages amongst the narrative of the lives of the characters. It works well, emphasizing the normalcy of everyday life against these weapons and the destruction they disperse.
There is no linear narrative, and there are no chapters. The novel is broken into small portions or paragraphs which all have something to do with the narrative, even if infinitesimally tiny. McCann keeps returning to the scenes of the young girl’s deaths, replaying them in the readers head until they dominate your thoughts, and the complete senseless tragedy of their deaths hits you. We read of their loves, their passions, their skills. Futures that a rubber bullet and a bomb erased. And yet these weapons are just objects. They have no emotion, feel no hatred.
McCann also writes of the propaganda and misconception printed and reported by both sides. Both sides will use false information to justify their actions. Misconception and falsehoods that just lead to more violence, which again, leads to false reports and innuendo. It is a vicious circle, a snake eating its own tail.
The genius of McCann’s writing can be found in paragraphs like this,
“When, in 2009, Mitchell was appointed as special envoy to the Middle East, he had a sudden feeling that he was walking into the middle of another smashed jigsaw -PLO, JDL, DFLP, LEHI, PFLP, ALA, PIJ, CPT, IWPS, ICASH, AIC, AATW, EIJ, JTJ, ISM, AEI, NIF, ACRI, RHR, BDS, PACBI, BNC – only this time it is so much more difficult to find a straight edge with which to begin”.
My review cannot do justice to what McCann has achieved with this novel. It’s a masterpiece.
There is a particular passage from the novel which has stayed with me in which Phillipe Petit walks across a tightrope. He has purchased a pigeon which was meant to be a dove, but he could not find one, and he releases it halfway across the tightrope. Instead of the pigeon flying away, it lands on his head pecking him, then leaps onto his balance bar threatening a lethal fall. There was a festival for this walk, and it was called the “Bridge of Peace”. Is McCann using this passage to represent the peace process in the Middle East and the difficulty of its sustainability? I think he is. The wire is also on an incline. The steep road of the peace process perhaps? Petit, had no safety net, and despite the pigeon, despite the fear, he made it. 5 Stars!!!
Colum McCann is the author of three collections of short stories and six novels, including "Apeirogon," due to be published in Spring 2020. His other books include "TransAtlantic," "Let the Great World Spin," "This Side of Brightness,""Dancer" and “Zoli,” all of which were international best-sellers.
“Let the Great World Spin” won the National Book Award in 2009. His fiction has been published in over 40 languages and has appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly, GQ, Paris Review and other places. He has written for numerous publications including The Irish Times, Die Zeit, La Republicca, Paris Match, The New York Times, the Guardian and the Independent.
Colum has won numerous international awards and has been a bestseller on four continents. He is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, as well as the Irish association of artists, Aosdana. He has also received a Chevalier des Artes et des Lettres from the French government. He is the cofounder of the global non-profit story exchange organisation Narrative 4.
In 2003 Colum was named Esquire magazine's "Writer of the Year." Other awards and honors include a Pushcart Prize, the Rooney Prize, the Irish Independent Hughes and Hughes/Sunday Independent Novel of the Year 2003, and the 2002 Ireland Fund of Monaco Princess Grace Memorial Literary Award. He was recently inducted into the Hennessy Hall of Fame for Irish Literature.
His short film "Everything in this Country Must," directed by Gary McKendry, was nominated for an Academy Award Oscar in 2005.
Colum was born in Dublin in 1965 and began his career as a journalist in The Irish Press. In the early 1980's he took a bicycle across North America and then worked as a wilderness guide in a program for juvenile delinquents in Texas. After a year and a half in Japan, he and his wife Allison moved to New York where they currently live with their three children, Isabella, John Michael and Christian.
Colum teaches in Hunter College in New York, in the Creative Writing program, with fellow novelists Peter Carey and Tea Obreht.
Colum has completed his new novel, "Apeirogon." Crafted out of a universe of fictional and nonfictional material, McCann tells the story of Bassam Aramin and Rami Elhanan. One is Israeli. One is Palestinian. Both are fathers. Both have lost their daughters to the conflict. When Bassam and Rami learn of each other's stories they recognize the loss that connects them, and they begin to use their grief as a weapon for peace.
In the novel McCann crosses centuries and continents. He stitches together time, art, history, nature and politics in a tale both heartbreaking and hopeful. Musical, cinematic, muscular, delicate and soaring, Apeirogon is a novel for our times.
There is a wonderful interview with Colum on youtube talking about Apeirogon. Both Bassam and Rami are present. It is really worth watching, link here - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9KDGKZuDQeE