- Apeirogon, by Colum McCann. Penguin Random House. $28.
"It will not be over until we talk."
It seems odd that Colum McCann would assign such significance to what sounds like - no, to what is - a bumper sticker slogan.
But there it is, perched proudly on page 32, occupying one of the 1,001 chapters that make up Apeirogon, McCann's ambitious new novel. Interestingly, it's not the only time we encounter the glib one-liner over the course of this stylish yet plotless book about fatherly grief set against the grim backdrop of the West Bank.
The story, to the extent that there is one in the conventional sense of the word, revolves around Bassam Aramin and Rami Elhanan, two real-life characters, one Palestinian, one Israeli, united in their opposition to Israel's unrelenting occupation of Palestine. Politics aside, the two men share a tragic bond. Both lost daughters to the violence that the occupation continues to ferment.
In September 1997, Smadar Elhanan, two weeks shy of her 14th birthday, was walking along Ben Yehuda Street in East Jerusalem listening to Sinead O'Connor's "Nothing Compares 2U" on her walkman when three Palestinians detonated their suicide belts nearby, killing themselves and four others in the resulting butchery. "Bomb in Jerusalem. Bomb in Jerusalem. Bomb in Jerusalem."
Rami was in the car when he heared the news and McCann, who interviewed both men at length in New York, Jerusalem, Jericho and Beit Jala, deftly reconstructs the anxious moments that presumably followed that fateful news bulletin. The frantic phone call to his wife, Nurit. Their I'm-sure-it's-nothing reassurances. And the improbable drive home where "every single hole in the traffic seemed to open up for him". But before we find out what happens, McCann winds the clock forward 10 years.
It's January 2007. Ten-year-old Abir Aramin has gone to the local sweet shop in Anata, the small West Bank town a few kilometres from Old Jerusalem, after school with her friends. Not long after leaving the shop, Abir is shot in the back of the head, for no reason whatsoever, by an 18-year-old border guard. She was holding a candy bracelet when the rubber bullet crushed her skull. Years later, at a lecture in Stockholm, the barely fictive Bassam said he sometimes "felt as if the rubber bullet had been travelling a whole decade". Of course, the reverberations of those events are still felt intensely by both men today.
In the middle of the book, McCann steps aside and gives his two protagonists a chance to speak for themselves, in a way, over two chapter 500s - one for Bassam, one for Rami. These chapters, taken directly from conversations McCann had with the men, are two of the strongest in the book. Recalling the moment that his state of ignorant bourgeois bliss was shattered, Rami says, "It was the beginning of a long cold dark night that is still long and cold and dark and will always be long and cold and dark, until the end when it will still be cold and dark".
Bassam's chapter 500 is no less wrenching. "I still sit in that ambulance every day. I keep waiting for it to move. Every day she gets killed again and every day I sit in the ambulance, willing it to move, please move, please please please, just go, why are you staying here, let's just go."
As a book about loss, it's hard to fault Apeirogon. Where it does falter, however, is in its treatment of the Palestinian question. McCann is clearly fascinated by the ceaseless "conflict" that has come to characterise life in the Holy Land, but one gets the distinct impression that he's not an entirely "honest broker", to borrow a phrase from what used to be known as the "peace process". At best, there's a moral equivalence at play in Apeirogon. At worst, well, something decidedly worse.
A case in point. We're told more than once that Rami is a member of one of Jerusalem's "old" families, a "seventh-generation Jerusalemite". McCann also seems eager to tell us that Rami's wife is a general's daughter. Israeli aristocracy, basically. What McCann neglects to mention is what any of this detail means, which makes one wonder whether he thinks Israeli claims to the contested lands are somehow more valid than Palestinian ones.
Of course, anyone who knows anything about the region will understand that what Rami's ancestry really means is that he's a member of a very tiny minority in a country full of immigrants. It also means that Rami's ancestors would have lived harmoniously with the "old" Palestinian families, families from which the late Edward Said, and his intellectual successor, Rashid Khalidi, for example, both descend.
"It will not be over until we talk." Bumper sticker bullshit. Israelis and Palestinians have been talking for a generation.
It will not be over until "both sides" find a way to return to the relative harmony that existed before a hegemonic colonial project was unleashed on an undeserving people.
- T.J. Collins is a Sydney essayist and critic.