Colum McCann appears in two Bay Area events to promote his novel “Apeirogon.” (Author photo courtesy Elizabeth Eagle)

‘Apeirogon’ looks at Middle East with empathy

Colum McCann’s novel explores loss, friendship between rivals

“Apeirogon” is a mind-bending and momentous new novel by Colum McCann. On one level, it is the story of two men, Rami Elhanan, an Israeli and Bassam Aramin, a Palestinian, whose lives converge after their young daughters are murdered in separate acts of political violence. In the wake of their misery, the two grieving fathers develop an unlikely friendship and begin to work together for peace. But like the book’s title (an apeirogon is “a shape with a countably infinite number of sides”), this book is so much more.

With the permission of two real-life fathers, McCann, with intelligence and empathy, imagines the lives of their two families while weaving their realities into the infinite complexities of the region. He clearly listened with compassion as he learned about them and the painful pasts of their people. Rami’s fear of “dangerous Palestinians” and the memory of the Holocaust haunted his days. Bassam was tormented by time in an Israeli jail and the indignities of living in the West Bank.

In 1997, Rami’s 13-year-old daughter, Smadar, is killed by three Palestinian suicide bombers as she walks with her friends on a busy Jerusalem street. In 2007, Bassam’s 10-year-old daughter, Abir, is killed by an Israeli border policeman as she walks out of a candy store near her school in Anata in the West Bank.

Both families are traumatized by the girls’ violent deaths. Each father ponders revenge. Each, though, eventually joins the Parents Circle, a support group for Jews and Arabs whose children were killed in the conflict.

The two bereft fathers learn to lean on each other. They become friends, begin to call each other brother and speak about their experience around the world. They come to believe that there is potential for peace if they (and eventually others) can comprehend the history of one another: “Bassam and Rami gradually came to understand that they would use the force of their grief as a weapon.”

It is hard to do justice to the multilayered nature of McCann’s storytelling. The novel has 1001 chapters, echoing “One Thousand and One Nights.” Some chapters are a single sentence; some several pages.

McCann incorporates facts that shed light on the area’s complicated and painful history, adding to the richness of this hybrid novel describing the complex quagmire that is the Middle East.

There are details about David and Goliath, the Crusades, the Holocaust, the War for Independence, the Occupation, the Al-Aqsa Mosque, the Wailing Wall, Theresienstadt and Buchenwald. Also included are anecdotes about Freud, Spielberg, Mahmood Darwish, John Kerry, Arafat, Jesus, the Qur’an and the Torah. McCann explores the etymology of words, the history of towns and the artists, writers, musicians, mathematicians and scientists whose contributions have affected both communities.

McCann points out paradoxes, ironies and tragic limitations of ways people try to resolve their differences and overcome the persistent cycle of violence.

And though sorrow hovers in “Apeirogon,” the book does offer hope. As Bassam states, “We were killing each other, over and over and over. There will be security for everyone when we have justice for everyone. It’s a disaster to discover the humanity of your enemy, his nobility, because then he is not your enemy anymore, he just can’t be.”

And the bumper sticker affixed to Rami’s motorbike reads: “It will not be over until we talk.”

Despite criticism from their respective communities for collaborating, Rami Elhanan and Bassam Aramin move forward with courage and leadership. Thanks to McCann’s groundbreaking book, the rest of us can better know their world and try to emulate their example of listening to others with empathy.

Katherine Read blogs at



Written by: Colum McCann

Published by: Random House

Pages: 480

Price: $28 (hard cover)


Note: McCann appears at 1 p.m. March 11 at Book Passage, 51 Tamal Vista Blvd. Corte Madera; and at 7 p.m. March 11 at the Jewish Community Center, 3200 California St., S.F. in a ticketed event ($30).


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