The irony was inescapable, concluding the reading of Colum McCann’s tremendously inventive novel “Apierogon” just as Arab-Israeli violence and tensions escalate to what is perhaps another inevitable war. The irony is that in “Apierogon” McCann presents us with a sliver of hope as two men – one Palestinian, the other Israeli – work together to speak of peace and the end of ‘occupation’. Based on their true stories, they are joined in common grief at the death of a child, inadvertently killed because of the history of their peoples. A grief that is indiscriminate and knows no sides.
The novel doesn’t shy away from the harsh realities of living in Rami and Bassam’s part of the Middle East; the segregation, the mistrust, the practicalities of dealing with everyday security, the somewhat random brutality of checkpoints and division. But it also offers a glimpse of what is possible, these two men touring the world wherever there is an audience to tell their stories, to try and change minds.
Theirs is a mission susceptible to doubt: “what is the point?” they seem to ask. And yet if they can change just one mind, is that reward enough? So they endure the hostility, the shouting, the abuse because they might just make a difference.
The tragedy, of course, is that not enough people share their vision, entrenched in their beliefs and prejudices – and sometimes just obeying orders. In a way, the “what’s the point?” question should be applied with more rigour to the politicians and activists who prolong the old way of things. Surely Life is hard enough – and wonderful enough – for us all to embrace it positively, not simply submitting oneself to ancient hatreds.
McCann’s non-linear structure not only blends history with the present, it keeps the whole before our eyes all the time; there is no relaxing; at no point can you think “well that’s over, I won’t need to deal with it again”. And because the story and the elements of Rami’s and Bassam’s narratives are always there, likely to jump out at you when you least expect it, it is an approach which keeps the reader on their toes – and doesn’t allow you to forget, just as Rami and Bassam cannot forget.
“Apierogon” – and Rami and Bassam – could be a metaphor for any polarised belief systems: Arab and Jew, Muslim and Christian, Communist and Capitalist, Protestant and Catholic.