There are few topics on earth as likely to draw ire and court controversy as the Israel-Palestine conflict. Almost impossibly overdetermined by emotion, a kaleidoscopic myriad of conflicting views, the looming historical spectres of both the Holocaust and colonialism, and the centrality of the tension to global politics, it is among modern history’s most intractable problems. But with his new novel Apeirogon, Irish writer Colum McCann has attempted to ground that sprawling geopolitical mass in the human. Rather than an entirely fictional account, Apeirogon is rooted in the stories of Bassam Aramin and Rami Elhanan, a Palestinian and Israeli respectively, who each lost a daughter to the conflict. They are now close friends, and are each members of Combatants for Peace, an organization started by Bassam for both Israelis and Palestinians who have lost loved ones. McCann’s narrative is written in an almost aphoristic style of 1001 parts, evoking One Thousand and One Nights, and weaves together pieces of those two men’s stories of loss with other historical fragments. McCann spoke to me over the phone from New York.
First question is an obvious and perhaps blunt one, but: why take on a topic like Israel-Palestine that, for many people, is like a third rail?
A third rail indeed! But sometimes the only things worth doing are the things that might break you. This story often threatened to break me, but everything about it intrigued me also. I was completely taken by it. And yet at the same time terrified. What other conflict is as divisive as this one? How can a writer get in under the nature of all this and capture the vagaries of what’s going on? I wanted to tell a story that anyone who knew nothing about the conflict could understand, but at the same time write it for people who absolutely understood the nuts and bolts. That was the challenge.
The form of the novel seemed to me to be very much about placing things in relation to one another. When in the process did you arrive at the form of the novel and what led you to that form specifically?
Very early on for the form. Right at the very beginning, in fact. But I’ve been at my students for years to write something that reflects the way many of us think nowadays and what happens to us when we look at the internet, where we land on something and five minutes later we land on something else and then you go down the rabbit hole and you wonder ‘how did I get here?’.
At a certain stage, I began to feel like the conductor of an orchestra. Song, sonata, symphony. And music is the most direct of the arts when it comes to shaping our emotions. The book had to have point and counterpoint. Symmetry and opposition. I didn’t see it as analogic or aphoristic. I saw it as an expansive form that eventually came to be symphonic in my head. I wanted to say that we are all there, we are all complicit, we are all involved in the stories of these young girls.
Could you talk a bit about the process of research? How did you go about putting together the story and how did you amalgamate all that information?
Some of it was in my head and some it came from following your instinct. I read a lot of books. But it was kind of like shaping music: you go into the studio and you say “I’m going to work on the saxophone today” or “there’s too much tambourine in there” so it’s not unlike that. But it’s like a lot of other research. I do a lot of travelling, or just walking around places, talking, listening. And then a lot of it was just flying by the seat of your pants and hoping it all works out.
Did you have a lot of back and forth with Rami and Bassam, the people actually involved in the narrative? Did they help shape the narrative?
In terms of shaping the narrative, no. But I talked to them all the time. I slept in their houses, I rode on Rami’s motorbike, I was in Bassam’s car, I ate with their families, I went to their sons’ houses. They were extraordinary in giving me access. I don’t think they knew what it was entirely what they were getting themselves into. When they did, though, they were incredibly generous and they didn’t put any parameters on me.
But they didn’t have any influence on the way I wrote. The only thing that Rami objected to was that I changed his motorbike. In the narrative I gave him gears, but in real life it’s an automatic. But automatics are boring. It was only little things like that.
What was their reaction after the book was released?
They found it particularly difficult to read, which I was very glad for. They read journalism all the time, but that slides off them. This was very raw and tough for them. Bassam actually hasn’t read it, because he can’t. They did each have their sons and family friends read it in advance, so they knew that it was “true,” if we can use that word.
Speaking of the word “true,” how did you decide – embellish seems like the wrong word – but flesh out through fiction?
I just felt it. It’s just a felt thing. But it’s all true. Even the idea that Rami rides a motorbike with gears, it’s kind of true; it allows the reader onto the motorbike in a much easier way. There’s no embellishment as such, you can’t really embellish the story. Bassam goes to prison for seven years, he has polio and he’s a lookout, he becomes a commander in prison, he sees a documentary about the Holocaust and gets completely disrupted and starts an organization called Combatants for Peace, and two years later his daughter is shot in the back of the head and killed. Then he goes to study the Holocaust. It’s hard to embellish anything like that. Didn’t Mark Twain say truth is stranger than fiction?
Over the past few years, there has been this idea about the rise of “post-truth.” The relationship between fiction and truth has always been complicated … but what was your thought process in deploying historiographic metafiction for this particular story?
We can really get into this one! Fiction, non-fiction. Truth, post-truth. You’re right – the relationship between fiction and truth has always been complicated but so has the relation between non-fiction and truth. And what is the difference between fiction and non-fiction? Where do we draw the line? (Geertz talked about the real being imagined, and the imagined being real). Facts are mercenary things. They can be manipulated. Or they can work miracles. I prefer the idea of texture to fact. I think texture gets to the deeper truth. But don’t get me wrong. I don’t privilege the poet over the journalist, or the fiction writer over the essayist. I like the holy word put in the right place. There is so much to unpack here. On a very simple level, it’s all about story-telling. Can you tell a good story that reveals what Faulkner would have talked about as ‘the human heart in conflict with itself’?
I like it when a piece of writing feels absolutely true. When the music is working. When there is harmony.
In the novel, there are some spots (like the mention of the John Cage opera, etc.) where you invoke an idea of art as a kind of interjection into a historical or aesthetic context. What place do you feel literary narrative has in relation to history – or even in relation to the history yet to be made?
Nice question. One I’m still trying to figure out. Let me answer this way. My grandfather was alive on June 16, 1904. I only ever met him once: in London, when I was about nine. But I know him so much more because I have read Ulysses. Ulysses gives me context for my own lifeblood. Ulysses gives me streets, gives me language, gives me colour. Literature can do this. The miracle of literature is that we can become alive in a body or a history not necessarily our own. If the poets are the unacknowledged legislators, as Shelley argued, then perhaps the fiction writers are the unacknowledged historians.
There has been a lot of chatter in recent years about who has the right to tell certain stories. Was or is that a concern for you?
Yes, of course. I am much more conscious of what it is I want to take on these days. And I was very aware of the dangers of going in to this subject. And, let’s face it, cultural appropriation is very, very real and very dangerous. Writers and artists – mea culpa – often go in places we shouldn’t go and quite often we condescend. We patronize. We steal. We mock. We take advantage. We don’t think. We don’t recognize. We don’t stretch. We don’t see past our own noses. We sometimes even pat ourselves on the back for our supposed bravery, which is really just a form of boasting. So all this is quite patently wrong. If our intention is to take away from another culture, then it is wrong, plain and simple, and we deserve to be called out on it. And god bless the people in our universities and in our newspapers who are calling it out. I don’t shrink from any of this stuff.
At the same time, we should also be talking about cultural celebration – where we go in to learn, to share, to deepen, to shed light. That’s a different story, or maybe part of the same story. This is when we go in with humility. We go in with grace. We go in saying, I’m confused, please teach me. We go somewhere because we know we are not full enough, or big enough, or bright enough. And we get kicked around a little by the truth. And we somehow come out the far end a little wiser and a little bruised hopefully. That’s what I hope I did with Apeirogon. And the fact that Rami and Bassam are travelling with me and supporting the book is an amazing thing.
Most writers hope their work to be read by as wide an audience as possible – but is there a specific audience you hope to reach with this book?
Yeah. Greta Thunberg. I want Greta to find an Israeli Greta, or a Palestinian Greta, or a Canadian Greta, who can pull this story up and spread it around the world in the search of justice and decency and some form of peace.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
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