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How do I describe Apeirogon?

A novel. A masterpiece created by a wordsmith of exceptional talent.

Viewed as a painting - broad strokes of violent vivid, scattered chaotically, contrasted with delicate pastel. In time, the random strokes on the canvas connect with the finer brush marks to reveal the full image.

Described as a symphony - a cacophony of discordant brass, merging with mellow strings. Yet, the haphazard sounds of the brass eventually blend with the rich mix of other instruments to produce harmony.

To change the metaphor again, it is as though the author introduces the reader to a stream, only to abruptly direct attention to a different stream, and then another, and another. Countless! The reward for flowing with the confusion is to discover the subtle connections that finally form a river. A river, mysterious, filled with tears and suffering, but also containing warmth, beauty and hope.

McCann skilfully provokes all the senses to create an experience that remained with me for weeks.

Rami, a ‘graduate’ of the Holocaust and Bassam, a convicted Palestinian rock-thrower unite in pain after their daughters are murdered by violent forces of the ‘other.’ The initial impact of their grief and efforts to survive their loss leads to transformation - a passionate commitment to nonviolence and peace.

The word apeirogon is formed from two Greek words; ‘infinite, boundless,’ and ‘angle.’ This geometric form consists of countably infinite number of sides. It is consistent with the structure of the book, a thousand sides, and also the complexity of the political issues.

The writer maintains a balanced position, moving beyond literary conventions to confront the reader with the core of the fathers’ agony. I experienced, rage, frustration, uncertainty, grief, relief, helplessness. The narrative is without chapters, with numbered sections. The absence of speech quotation marks and sentences that flow without a break, build intensity.

And yet another metaphor. Bassam and Rami face what appears as an impossible mountain. A terrible fault line runs from bottom to top, wide at the base narrowing towards the summit. In their ascent, each constantly encounters the fault line on their spiral path. As they progress, the trauma and rawness of the initial tragedy is diminished. However, the imprint of their heartbreak has to be negotiated at every stage of their journey. The circularity of returning regularly to the fault line creates greater impact, depth and insight.

McCann relates when the French writer Antonin Artaud was invited to speak about his essay ‘The Theatre and the Plague’ at Sorbonne University in 1933. He spoke quietly at first, but then gathered pace. He began sweating and shivering, his eyes rolled back in his head. As the minutes progressed, he contorted and twisted in anguish until he fell off his chair on to the floor. Artaud seemed to be in the grip of a full fever. The audience sat stunned. Some thinking it part of the act laughed. Others booed – slow handclapped, some drifted out. Artaud remained on the floor until most had left the auditorium and then sprang to his feet. “He was shocked they had not understood his portrayal of death. It was his desire to give the audience the actual experience – short of the plague itself – so that they would awaken from their everyday stupors and be terrified.” He believed gesture and movement to be more powerful than text.

Colum McCann’s ‘delivery’ in Apeirogon resonates with Artaud’s performance, confronting the reader with the tragic experience of two fathers, whose world changed forever.


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