The Power of Forgiveness: Colum McCann’s book ‘Apeirogon’

Marc Rastoin, SJ

 Marc Rastoin, SJ / People / Published Date:4 December 2020/Last Updated Date:16 March 2021

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For decades now the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been in the news and on our minds. It is certainly not the most harrowing conflict that humanity has known since the end of the Second World War, nor is it the most deadly or atrocious. Nevertheless, countless pages of geopolitical reflection and narrative have been written about it. Meanwhile, it has evolved, year after year, as national identities, as well as narratives built around conflicts, keep changing over time.

To underline only the most evident aspect of this conflict, the religious dimension was hardly present in either the first Zionist movement or the Palestinian nationalist organizations of the 1960s or 1970s. And now an Irish author, Colum McCann, has written a book that approaches it from an original perspective and looks at the conflict in depth.[1] The book has an enigmatic title, Apeirogon, a term that indicates a geometric figure with an infinite number of sides. It is neither a novel nor a work of fiction, neither a work of history nor an academic essay; it does not claim to offer solutions or explanations.  It claims nothing: this is its strength.

Two wounded fathers

La Civilta Cattolica

What, then, is the intent of this book? The author spent months meeting two men at length. One is Bassam Aramin, a Palestinian; the other is Rami Elhanan, an Israeli. What do they have in common? Something very simple and at the same time very painful: both of them have lost a daughter because of “others.” Rami and his wife had a 13-year-old daughter, Smadar, who was killed in a suicide attack in Jerusalem. Ten years later, Bassam and his wife also lost a much-loved daughter, Abir: the rubber bullet from an Israeli soldier struck her in the back of her head and took her life.

Two intelligent, happy girls, full of life, the joy of their families. How to live on after these events? How not to give in to the desire for deadly revenge? Or to an endless despair while the conflict continues and it seems there is no glimpse of a solution to stop other children from suffering the same fate year after year?

McCann listened to these two men and their families. With extreme sensitivity and an incredibly precise choice of words, he gives universal resonance to their pain and their lives. The two fathers became friends by collaborating in an association that brings together the parents of the victims of the violence of this conflict, the Parents Circle. McCann has made up neither their meeting nor their words. He was struck by their story and wanted, with their consent, to make it into a “novel.” It is a novel, because he himself added elements, reconstructed or imagined certain thoughts, but with a keen desire to remain faithful to their voices.

There was nothing to predispose Rami and Bassam to enter this path. Bassam is a Palestinian fighter who spent a long time in an Israeli prison. He wanted to learn, to discover the truth of the Shoah, the history of the Israeli people, the law. He does not resign himself to the occupation. On the other hand, Rami lived like many Israelis, not thinking at all, or only rarely, about the Palestinians, as if they were very far away. The drama that affected them both men – and still affects them – challenged them in their deepest convictions about their people and themselves.

In a certain sense Bassam and Rami are small and anonymous, but they refuse to do nothing, to let the unjust deaths of their beloved daughters be forgotten. They think that starting to talk, to share their pain, to try to understand the other with deep empathy is the only possible way, the only way to peace. “Bassam and Rami gradually came to understand that they would use the force of their grief as a weapon.”[2] They have become a new type of activist, risking the misunderstanding and rejection of their respective communities.

Talking for a living

Almost imperceptibly, this book makes us penetrate the mindset of Israelis and Palestinians, and it recounts many admirable and honest anecdotes. For Bassam the root of all evil is the reality of the Occupation, with its sequel of humiliations: “For him everything still came back round to the Occupation. It was a common enemy. It was destroying both sides. He didn’t hate Jews, he said, he didn’t hate Israel. What he hated was being occupied, the humiliation of it, the strangulation, the daily degradation, the abasement.”[3]

Rami became aware of this: “You see, I was forty-seven, forty-eight years old at that time, and I had to learn to admit it was the first time in my life, to that point – I can say this now, I could never even think it then – it was the first time that I’d met Palestinians as human beings.”[4] The frankness of both fathers is impressive.

The structure of the book is quite original, although it has become more frequent in modern literature, as the narrative is not linear, but makes frequent use of flashbacks. The paragraphs are numbered, and their length varies from one or two lines to several pages.

Our only reservation concerns certain inclusions that the author has inserted here and there and that mention characters or events that have nothing to do with the story of Bassam and Rami. For example, he gives us the last menu of the meal that President Mitterrand wanted to eat before his death. It is difficult to understand what positive contribution this brings to the story. But this is a minor criticism, since it is the inner journey of these two men that illuminates the work.

What perhaps most strikes a Christian reader is to see to what extent the thoughts of these two men deeply align with the Gospel insights into the scope of speech and forgiveness. “It will not be over until we talk.”[5] Without the term being mentioned, there is sometimes a hint of the Beatitudes. For example, when Rami says, “We had to learn to use the force of our humanity. To be violently nonviolent. To bow our heads to the things we need to tell one another. That is not soft, that’s not weak, on the contrary, it’s human.”[6] No reader can come away indifferent from such a book, from this encounter with two men that we come to have the impression of knowing well. For this reason,  a tribute must be paid to Colum McCann.

DOI: La Civiltà Cattolica, En. Ed. Vol. 4, no. 12 art. 7, 1020: 10.32009/22072446.1220.7

[1] See C. McCann, Apeirogon, A Novel, London, Bloomsbury, 2020.

[2] Ibid., par. 160.

[3] Ibid., par. 277.

[4] Ibid., par. 500.

[5] Ibid., par. 247.

[6] Ibid., par. 500.