Apeirogon by Colum McCann
program conducted on 18 April 2021
- Sonal Khot
The Book Club Pune met at their usual time on Sunday April 18 with Sunita Shetty presenting the acclaimed novel Apeirogon by Colum McCann. This novel has received glowing reviews and was longlisted for the 2020 Booker prize. Sunita gave an excellent presentation to the group, telling us not just what the book was all about but also highlighting the author’s unusual writing technique and the inspiring true-life story behind the book.
An apeirogon is defined as a shape with an infinite but countable number of sides. So too is the book Apeirogon a representation of a story with several different perspectives, repercussions, connections and impacts. Colum McCann has based this novel on the true stories and experiences of Bassam, a Palestinian, and Rami, an Israeli, both of whom have lost daughters in the prevailing conflict between their people. He demonstrates how everything that happens in this space is interconnected, and the killing of a girl in Israel or a girl in Palestine is not an isolated incident. It affects not just her family and immediate surroundings, but has cause and effect and similarities to a countless number of people and places around the world. He subtly makes the point that we cannot ignore the loss of a single life in this callous fashion when we understand the reverberations it has both near and far.
Sunita recounted the stories of Bassam and Rami in a most affecting way. Bassam is a quiet man with a limp. He had been jailed by the Israelis as a teenager after impulsively throwing a grenade at soldiers in the aftermath of a shooting. His quiet demeanor and stoicism gave him stature while in jail. His guards were frustrated that he was always the last man standing his ground when punishments were meted out. Having started out as a Holocaust-denier, he had a change of heart after seeing documentaries about it in jail. He expected to exult in seeing Jews suffer, but instead had the realization that, just like him, they too had experienced unspeakable indignities and been denied the right to live in their homes. He came to believe that it was wrong to hate your enemy. This led Bassam down the path of non-violence, and once out of jail, he started Combatants for Peace to bring former soldiers from Israel and Palestine together in an effort to bring about change and acceptance. Bassam’s daughter Abir died after a stray rubber bullet from an Israeli soldier struck her in the head while she was buying candy outside her school. But his belief that Israelis and Palestinians “share an equity of pain” is unshaken and in the face of his own personal tragedy, he redoubled his efforts along with his friend Rami in their advocacy work.
Rami is a 7th generation Israeli and married to the daughter of a prominent general. He is a graphic designer and a military veteran. His daughter Smadar, a lively Sinead O’Connor fan, was out with her friends shopping for school supplies when word of a suicide bombing hit the news. Rami and his wife went out looking for her, and only when they had exhausted every avenue, did they consider the unthinkable and visit the morgue. Rami says he will never forget the sound of the metal tray being rolled out and the sight of daughter’s face confirming his worst fears. Rami initially reacted with great anger and wished death on every Palestinian. But he started to change when a rabbi invited him to meet The Parents Circle, a group of people from both sides who have lost children to the conflict. He raged at them, and they were willing to listen and accept him. He saw a Palestinian woman among them, holding the photo of her dead child and realized how much they all have in common. It is through the Parents Circle that he came to meet Bassam and the unexpected friendship and collaboration between the two is at the heart of the novel. They continue to work together even today as advocates for peace in the Middle East.
Colum McCann met Rami and Bassam through Narrative 4, a nonprofit that he co-founded. Narrative 4 uses the method of personal storytelling to bring people together. As the author so eloquently says, storytelling allows us “to step into the shoes of others in order to be able to step back into our own”. Bassam and Rami have adopted this very strategy in spreading their message of peace. They travel the world together to tell their individual stories and their shared vision for a better future.
Sunita pointed out that Apeirogon is structured in an unusual way. It is written in 1001 cantos, which are mini chapters or musings, in homage to The Arabian Nights. They might seem disjointed at times, but are connected by the finest of threads interwoven between topics as seemingly disparate as migratory birds, bullet manufacturing, Borges, Philip Petit, torture, checkpoints, poetry and music. The first 500 cantos are told in 3rd person and proceed sequentially, but the next 500 reverse course and count down from 499 back down to 1. This second set is recounted in the first person by Rami. Sunita felt that this approach made her feel that no matter how she read the book, and to which voice she listened, it all came down to the same thing. The same story. A Palestinian girl died. An Israeli girl died. People on both sides keep going through the same experience of pain, loss and suffering.
Sunita’s presentation on Apeirogon elicited a lively set of comments and questions from the other participants. Satish mentioned that the book reminds him of the lyrics to “Imagine” by John Lennon. Anil Kulkarni felt that there was hope in spite of the state of India and the world. Kaveri Narang agreed with the author and also took inspiration as he did from Germany, Ireland and South Africa and felt great admiration for both Rami and Bassam in their ability to rise to a higher purpose and see the need for a common humanity. John Samson echoed Satish’s thoughts about Lennon. He felt that the great conflicts of the world have a timeline that we cannot manage, that they are controlled by forces that we cannot understand but that he believes and hopes do resolve in their own time. Several participants also discussed the politics behind the creation of Israel and the involvement of England and the United States in Middle Eastern politics from that time onwards. Mukul Ahmed told us an interesting personal anecdote from a a holiday spent in Israel, where a Palestinian hotel worker described the prevailing situation as dropping a glass vase and knowing that shards will scatter everywhere. Apeirogon could also be described similarly - a kaleidoscope of different people, places and experiences all coming together, all finding themselves connected in a story that takes place in Israel and Palestine but affects us all.
Thank you, Sunita, for an engaging presentation and to Mohini and Satish for moderating a lively discussion!
- - Sonal Khot