Colum McCann

Bloomsbury, £18.99

Review by Stephen Phelan

In November 2017, the Palestinian peace activist Bassam Aramin came to speak in Glasgow. Some 200 people crowded into the Giffnock & Newlands Synagogue to hear the story he’d been telling at similar events all over the world: how his 10-year-old daughter Abir was killed a decade earlier by an Israeli border guard who fired a rubber bullet into the back of her skull while she was leaving a sweet shop in the West Bank. And how the killer was no less a victim of the Occupation than his little girl.

That story is repeated again at the centre of Colum McCann’s new novel. It’s set alongside the testimony of Rami Elhanan, an Israeli veteran of the Yom Kippur War whose own daughter Smadar died aged 14, in a 1997 attack by Hamas suicide bombers at a Jerusalem mall. Elhanan had since come to recognise his own grief in the Palestinian members of the Parents Circle, a cross-border forum for families who have lost children on either side of the conflict.

Both fathers, now friends, belong to that group, and also to the Combatants For Peace organisation – Aramin was jailed as a teenager for plotting to ambush Israeli Defence Forces. But what appears to be a bloody biographical symmetry does not nearly cover what McCann is attempting with Apeirogon, the title referring to a geometric shape with a “countably infinite number of sides”. Which is to say that you can just keep counting forever, as those sides turn in a never-ending loop across time and space.

Years of research on and around these men’s stories have yielded stacks of notes drawn from multiple disciplines. Middle-Eastern political history, of course, but also ornithology, cartography, poetry, algebra, forensic science and state security tactics. The resulting book is arranged in 1,001 numbered sections, like the Arabian Nights, running up to 500 and back down to zero.

The longest of these are the most novelistic, rendering Aramin and Elhanan as characters, and building discrete narratives around the facts of their cases. One sequence tells of the former’s agonising ambulance ride with his mortally wounded daughter through a bottlenecked checkpoint; another of the latter’s dawning panic as news of a bombing radiates outward from Ben Yehuda Street even as he learns that his daughter was in the vicinity.

The tension in those passages between natural empathy and tonal neutrality makes them hot to the touch. Your face burns reading them. Then McCann will seem to cut away, like a film editor, or an archivist shuffling his file cards, and you abruptly find yourself learning about the swifts that nest in the Western Wall, or the secret hajj pilgrimage of 19th-century explorer Sir Richard Burton, or the letters between Einstein and Freud on the problem of humanity’s “active instinct for hate and destruction.” The author is never quite changing the subject, though certain transitions seem a bit of a stretch, and you may wish he’d taken different tacks here and there.

Elhanan’s wife, Nurit, for example, is a radical left-wing professor and linguist with outright contempt for Benjamin Netanyahu, a source of fury and fascination, but the scheme of the book only allows her a cameo appearance. Even so, all these semi-digressions build a cumulative power, an almost cosmic sense of context. The meaning of the whole is encoded in every part, its fabric woven with brief discourses on GH Hardy, Goethe, and Edward Said, who believed that “survival is about connections between things.”

McCann’s design aspires to a harmony more common in music, architecture, and mathematics than in language, or life as it’s lived, especially on the West Bank. We may never get there with mere words, but there’s no hope without them. This reader was left with an image of Rami Elhanan riding his motorbike at high speed along the Apeirogon itself, a road with no beginning or end, the writing on his bumper sticker a barely legible blur: “It will not be over until we talk.”