The title of Colum McCann’s new novel, Apeirogon (Random House), means a shape with a "countably infinite" number of sides. The book is set in Israel and Palestine, where, as the title suggests, there are thousands of stories with different points of view. Based on the real-life experiences of Bassam Aramin, a Palestinian, and Rami Elhanan, an Israeli, two men bound by the violent deaths of their daughters, the novel is unlike anything the Irish-born writer has ever attempted.
McCann, who appears Feb. 26 as a guest of Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures New & Noted series, answered questions via email for Pittsburgh City Paper.
There's so much to digest in Apeirogon — ornithology, falconry, religion, faith, the history of Palestine and Israel, to mention a few — that it must have been quite the task to weave together.
It felt to me like I was creating a symphony. I was the conductor, but not a very reliable one since I'm not very good with music. I asked for a cello, I asked for a piano, I asked for a trombone. And then I began trying to fit them all together. At the same time, new instruments came along to surprise me, and I had to incorporate them too. It was a beautiful challenge. I have never undergone anything quite so difficult in my life. I hope the music emerged.
The relationship between Bassam and Rami is both heartening and heartbreaking. They seem so real, and both possible and impossible. Did you talk to men or women who are similar to Rami and Bassam?
Well, I talked to Rami and Bassam, who are real and yes, as you say, impossible. And I talked to their sons who are also real and impossible, too. And I talked to so many more people who feel like Rami and Bassam that the reality swerves toward the possible. It's as if they are a silent crew, not yet a majority, but maybe one day they will be. There is so much goodwill in these areas, but it gets discounted by the ease of hatred. Hatred is very loud. It draws attention to itself. True decency is meeker, but more powerful and more lasting and certainly more beautiful. Hatred is easy. Kinship is not. Give me the struggle any day.
After about 50 pages, I recognized a pattern: short passages, then longer blocks of text that seem to mimic travel throughout the region. As a reader you stop and start, lingering in the longer passages as if they are roadblocks. Were you consciously trying to mimic the rhythms, the patterns, of life in Israel and Palestine?
This is a great comment. (May I steal it?) OK, I found the patterns, not consciously but maybe in an unconscious manner. My readers (you!) are often so much smarter than me. It is my job to ALLOW the readers into new territory. I do not need to instruct them on how to think, but I must allow them a new space in their lives. And this is why I love having readers — readers fill out the world for me, they find new things behind the old curtains, they extend the apeirogon. I was looking for music and it just might be that the music was start-go-start-start-start-go-go-go-start again. I was trying to find a new form for an old story.
I think there's a tendency to view Israel and Palestine from one viewpoint. Apeirogon is the rare piece of writing that tries to cover many viewpoints. Why are so many resistant to taking an overview of this region, these people, who have been in conflict for so long?
I think we're scared. And I think we are aware of the deep truth: We need to KNOW one another. And knowing one another is more difficult than hating one another. I mean that. I'm not kidding. Knowing one another is a huge leap. Like I said before, hatred is easy. Kinship is a challenge, even a chore sometimes. True difficulty comes with compromise and generosity.
Are there any ways to jump start such conversations? Do you have any ideas about how we can be proactive rather than reactive?
I wish I could write an answer to this for the rest of my life, but please have a look at my organization Narrative 4 (narrative4.com) which absolutely promotes a way to jumpstart such conversations.
Finally, a simple question: Where do you find hope in a situation that has been endlessly problematic for ages?
I find it in Rami and Bassam. And the people who are willing to read this book. I don't mean that in an easy way. I mean it very sincerely. I find it in those who are prepared to take on the journey.