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'Apeirogon' review: Fathers dealing with grief, war in Israel

A dove stands on a wall while in

A dove stands on a wall while in the background smoke rises from a burning Palestinian fuel station after Israeli strikes in 2009. Credit: Getty Images/Abid Katib

APEIROGON by Colum McCann (Random House, 457 pp., $28)

“My name is Rami Elhanan. I am the father of Smadar. I am a 67-year-old graphic designer, an Israeli, a Jew, a seventh-generation Jerusalemite.”

“My name is Bassam Aramin, I am the father of Abir. I’m a Palestinian, a Muslim, an Arab.”

At the midpoint of “Apeirogon,” the 10th novel by National Book Award winner Colum McCann, are two transcripts, the nonfictional testimonies of two fathers who lost their daughters to the violence of their region. Rami’s daughter, Smadar, 14, was walking with her friends on a downtown street in 1997 when she was killed by a Palestinian suicide bomber. A decade later, Bassam’s 10-year-old daughter, Abir, was shot by an Israeli border guard on her way home from school.

As Rami puts it, “To be bereaved in Israel is to be part of a tradition, something really terrible but holy at the same time.” Rami and Bassam met through their shared participation in this bitter tradition, and from it came the friendship that inspired McCann to write this book. Around their life histories, the author fashions his apeirogon, a shape with a “countably infinite number of sides.”

The “countable” part of it adds up to 1,001, perhaps fiction’s most auspicious number. In 1,001 sections, many as short as a single sentence, McCann ruminates on the fates of these families as a way of grasping the situation in Israel and Palestine — one that is often thought of as having only two sides.

As we learn, there are always either less or more than two. Shortly after his release from seven years of imprisonment and torture as a terrorist, during which he was befriended by a guard named Hertzel, Bassam began meeting in secret with Israeli soldiers. “For us they were criminals, killers, enemies, assassins. And for them, we were the same.” Yet out of these meetings came a group called Combatants for Peace. Two years later, Bassam would gain unwanted entry to another group — the Parents’ Circle.   

“If you divide death by life, you will find a circle.”

That line is one of the aphorisms that echoes through the book. It is said to have been written by Hertzel, the prison guard turned friend, who came to the hospital to see Bassam when Abir was dying.

Less like a traditional novel than a long braided essay, the novel traces a day in the lives of Rami and Bassam. It shares the dangers of their ordinary errands. It perseverates with them on their daughter’s deaths. Years later Rami saw a documentary based on footage taken by a television crew that happened to be present during the bombing. He imagines climbing inside the film and making it go in “an entirely different direction — like a Borges story — so that the light was brighter, the chairs were righted, and the street was ordered, the cafe was intact, and Smadar was suddenly walking along again, her hair short, her nose pierced, arm in arm with her schoolgirl friends, sauntering past the cafe, sharing her Walkman, the smell of coffee sharp in her nostril, caught in the banality of not caring what happens next.”

Along with Jorge Luis Borges, the supporting cast of this wide-ranging novel includes Albert Einstein, Sigmund Freud, George Mitchell, Sinead O’Connor and Jesus. A 19th century traveler named Christopher Costigin. Francois Mitterrand. Flocks of migrating birds. The residents of Thieresenstadt and Nagasaki. A poet who was assassinated by the Mossad before he could finish translating "One Thousand and One Nights" into Italian, and a performance artist who memorialized him by shooting books.

McCann calls "One Thousand and One Nights" “a ruse for life in the face of death.” He has given us another one.

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