The BEST: Apeirogon
Reviewed by Erica Brown
An apeirogon is a polygon of infinite sides. This word never appeared on my SAT vocabulary lists. I heard about and then read Colum McCann’s brilliant new novel Apeirogon, and it became clear. The novel features two friends, an Israeli and a Palestinian, Rami and Bassam, tied by bonds of blood and loss. Both lost young daughters to the conflict and both belong to an organization called Combatants for Peace. These are real people alive today, but McCann gives them a fictional context and embellishes the details of their respective stories. In a creative play of One Thousand and One Nights, a complex weave of ancient Persian tales, the book’s format veers from the traditional novel; the story is told in 1,001 fragments, often a paragraph or a page long that discuss the migration patterns of certain birds, the humiliations of checkpoints, the composition of rubber bullets and the tragedy of burned Israeli buses, among many other themes. The fragments are at times significant, at times pedestrian, just when the reader needs a little psychic relief. Like McCann’s frigatebird that can stay aloft for up to two months, we are suspended above a traumatic situation, getting a view from what feels like infinite sides.
Many Jews, particularly Orthodox Jews, see the conflict through a sharp partisan and political lens, selectively keeping informed through books, newspapers, online outlets and conferences, that confirm their views rather than challenge them. We regard attempts to present a balanced perspective with natural and understandable suspicion. And yet great literature disarms us and invites us to consider the position of the other through an act of the imagination: to go somewhere we’ve never been, to see the pain of the other as a legitimate expression of our shared humanity.
McCann captures some of the profound identity wrestling that this long-standing conflict catalyzes within us as individuals, the contradictory impulses that feel near impossible to manage: “Rami often felt that there were nine or ten Israelis inside him, fighting. The conflicted one. The shamed one. The enamored one. The bereaved one…The one who wanted to be watched. The anarchist. The protester. The one sick and tired of all the seeing” (34).
The lines, polished like gems, reminded me instantly of Philip Roth’s famous description of the identity splinters in the American Jews he characterizes: “Inside every Jew there is a mob of Jews. The good Jew, the bad Jew. The new Jew, the old Jew. The lover of Jews, the hater of Jews. The friend of the goy, the enemy of the goy. The arrogant Jew, the wounded Jew. The pious Jew, the rascal Jew. The course Jew, the gentle Jew. The defiant Jew, the appeasing Jew. The Jewish Jew, the de-Jewed Jew” (Operation Shylock). In his Letters to a Young Writer, McCann advises, “Imitate, copy, but become your own voice.” And he did.
But McCann gives us something else, something highly original and important. He offers an outside view of the beauty and pain of the country we love. He offers us a literary condolence card for our immense grief while helping us gently see the countless and often meaningless losses of others, an exposure denied us with the combative press of politics and its unblinking surety.
Dr. Erica Brown, a consulting editor at TRADITION, is the director of the Mayberg Center for Jewish Education and Leadership and an associate professor at The George Washington University.
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[Published on May 7, 2020]