A most difficult book – A most necessary journey
Reviewed in the United Kingdom on 2 September 2020
I don’t know where to begin - or where to end – with this extraordinary book. I can’t conceive of what it would be to inhabit the heart and the minds of the two men whose stories – whose true stories – are so very deeply, so very viscerally engaged with by Colum McCann. Nor can I conceive of how a writer managed to hold all this, to be so true to everything, and do something so masterful and subtle in the writing.
This is a book which breaks out of the confines of writing. It is a true recounting, but McCann, a novelist, has done something which breaks the linear progression of story. Time is encountered backwards, forwards, across geographies. Startling and transcendent images, both pictorially and in factual description which creates metaphors whilst purely explaining what is, constantly throws the reader into deep places
This is not a trivial game, a merely intellectual exercise with the form of the novel. I don’t know what to call it, other than a total inhabitation of – everything – all at once.
This is not, in any way a difficult intellectual read. Its difficulty is the searing intensity of feeling, thinking, understanding which plunges the reader into a viscerally felt and experienced being.
To try and move away from describing this reader’s felt experience to the ‘what is it about’ of the novel, in a simpler way without describing how much MORE than simple this book is, would not have felt right. But, a simpler explanation is certainly needed :
Rami Elhanan, an Israeli and Bassam Aramin, a Palestinian, both lost, horrifically, unexpectedly, their young daughters. Smadar, Elhanan’s daughter was blown up in a suicide bomb attack by a Palestinian. Abir, Aramins daughter was killed by a rubber bullet fired by an Israeli Defence Force border policeman.
Rami and Bassam, on either side of a conflict, became involved with each other as ‘soul brothers’ within organisations working for an end to the Occupation, and a resolution of conflict: Combatants for Peace, and the Circle of Bereaved Parents.
And it is their accounts which are being told here – factually – but, also, so very much more deeply than the laying out of events themselves. This book, again and again and again, presents us with image after image (pictorially, linguistically) of the coherence, balance, harmony and beauty which life itself embodies. Reconciliations of oppositions are shown in so very many ways to be something which is built into the structure of life.
For example, the way flocks of birds fly – a co-operation between who leads and provides the worked for dynamic for birds behind to use and coast upon, and the changing over of positions. Within the plant kingdom, trees which ‘warn’ others of danger through chemical messaging, allowing others in the vicinity to produce more chemistry rendering their leaves to become more bitter, less palatable to feeders. Within mathematics, the concept of ‘amicable numbers’ - a pair of numbers, each of which is the sum of the factors of the other. We have focused, so much, too much on the evolutionary drive of ‘conflict’. There is another equally powerful force which is about co-operation, mutuality.
Set against many different manifestations and examples of dynamic, constructive reconciliations of oppositions are reminders of the many wanton destructions wrought by our complicated, troubled, extraordinary species, upon ourselves, and upon the world we inhabit : how often we have chosen the route of ‘anti-life’ how often we inhabit aberration.
And, running through all of that, the examples of human embodiment of what it REALLY means to be fully human, human as expansively and spaciously as we could be. Bassam and Rami are exemplars for us here, offering the possibilities of another choice.
As to the book’s title, which I guess, most, like me, may need to go to the dictionary for, and which is explained within the book:
“In geometry, an apeirogon or infinite polygon is a generalized polygon with a countably infinite number of sides. Apeirogons are the two-dimensional case of infinite polytopes. In some literature, the term "apeirogon" may refer only to the regular apeirogon, with an infinite dihedral group of symmetries” (wiki definition
Infinite number of sides : subtle, nuanced, and I guess, felt as the matter and manner of this book, even if we can only inhabit it, perhaps momentarily.
Please, please read this book