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Summer 2020

DJ CHRISTIAN NGO

Two reviews, separately written, on Colum McCann's new novel about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
1

Think of it like this: A country-folk singer whose first album was Talk of Heaven and his latest is The Gospel According to Water. An Irish-folk violinist. A Colorado folk singer whose music combines the guitar and banjo. Sting.

2. Imagine, then, an Irish-American DJ mixing the music of these four white middle-aged men into a long sample-based track about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

3. Apeirogon, Colum McCann’s latest, is that, only in hybrid-novel form and more banal than what the average Israeli or Palestinian reader could imagine. “To Sting and Joe Henry and Gregory Alan Isakov and Colm Mac Con Iomaire…this book was written to your music, in fact it became your music,” writes McCann in the acknowledgements. It is the most relevant example of artistic comparison in a book needlessly divided into 1001 short numbered sections—a quarter of which, for some reason, are comparative art musings.

4. Did you know that Picasso believed nothing is lost, that the red he took from one place turned up somewhere else? That so much of what Spielberg achieved in Schindler’s List can be found in the opening frames of the Shabbat candle?

5. Apeirogon is based on the story of a highly likely friendship between two coworkers at an NGO called Parents Circle-Families Forum (PCFF). Rami Elhanan is pushing seventy. One of the few Israeli thinkers he admires is non-Zionist former lawmaker, Dov Khenin. Another is historian Ilan Pappé, who believes that the creation of Israel was a mistake. Bassam Aramin is pushing sixty. He does not wish to voice a specific opinion on the right of return, territorial swaps or one state vs. two states. He and Rami both believe the occupation has to end before “anything else.” What would constitute an end to the occupation is never defined.

6. The main characters of Apeirogon have both lost daughters to the conflict, but their political views are not simply a result of their daughters’ death. Bassam disavowed violence after taking university classes while serving time in an Israeli jail for throwing grenades at a military jeep. He co-founded Combatants for Peace, which holds similar positions to Parents Circle, two years before the loss of his daughter. He joined Parents Circle—whose members, including Rami, he already knew—immediately after his daughter’s death.

Rami’s late daughter participated in a Women in Black protest against the occupation with her mother when she was nine. Yasser Arafat, who respected her activist grandfather, sent a representative to her funeral. Nurit, Rami’s wife, belongs to a family of high profile anti-Zionist activists. In the book, she states that she always hoped for an Israel that is a “vast mosaic—Jew Christian Muslim Atheist other Buddhist call it what you will.” Rami admired the activists in his family from afar before his daughter’s death; his first Parents Circle meeting convinced him it was time to become one himself.

There is absolutely no reason for a Palestinian like Bassam and an Israeli like Rami not to get along, when Rami belongs to the tiny percentage of Israeli Jews who challenge most of what Zionism stands for. This friendship is unusual or brave perhaps only to an outsider who views Israelis and Palestinians as perpetual “others,” defined primarily by their ethnic designations and not their personal ideologies.

7. A New York Times article about the novel stated that it came out at “a moment when the publishing industry is grappling with which stories are told and by whom.” A fairer characterization of the current debate in publishing is that it is about the supposedly “identity-less” writers who write about marginalized identities, and are no longer being able to do so without having their biases examined.

McCann has written in the voice of marginalized identities in his earlier books. One of the characters in Let The Great World Spin is an African-American prostitute, who says things like “I was the first n****r absolute regular on that stroll. They called me Rosa Parks. They used to say I was a chewing-gum spot. Black. And on the pavement.” The word n****r is spelled out. He also, for some reason, chooses to spell it out in this latest book.

Of his choice to fictionalize the stories of Rami and Bassam, McCann said, “I think people wouldn’t have trusted it as much if it wasn’t real.” It is unclear whether McCann felt he was more qualified to create the character of an African American female prostitute than the characters of Israeli and Palestinian males closer to his age, or if he hesitated to fully fictionalize “others” in this particular book because of the current climate in publishing.

8. Choosing to use “real people” did not stop McCann from writing a book about a devout Muslim and a secular Jew which nevertheless focuses on Christianity. Of the book’s 1001 sections, close to a hundred involve Christianity. The book’s entire linear plot describes an October 2016 day trip to a “Cremisan monastery in the mainly Christian town of Beit Jala,” in a book that declares that “Geography here is everything.”

When Bassam visited the US, it was only the music he heard in churches that “brought him home.” A Jew becoming more observant is described as “born again”—a term used by Christians, not Jews. We learn about John the Baptist, the Crusaders, Saint Barbara, Defender of the Holy Sepulcher, Saint Simeon, Lazarus. Time is recorded as “in the first century before Christ.” McCann’s recurring phrase, a “tightening lung,” is used first to describe the occupation; and later, following a graphic description of the physical torture endured by Jesus, to describe the moment of his death.

McCann claims that he chose to write about this conflict because he is drawn to difficulty. But the Christian focus of the book betrays that one of the reasons McCann chose to write this book is also one of the reasons why this relatively bloodless Mideast conflict is the most covered international news story in the West—and the same reason that explains why donations keep flowing to the hundreds of American- and European-funded NGOs dedicated to Holy Land conflict tourism. Telos, the organization that first educated McCann about the conflict, is run by two Americans, one evangelical and one of Palestinian-Christian descent. They focus on educating American communities of faith about the conflict in what they call the “Holy Land.”

9. Moreover, similar to the many novels written in the voice of Israelis by contemporary American Jewish novelists, there is no mention of Mizrahi identity, even though only 30 percent of Israelis are Ashkenazi. The Holocaust, of course, is the only diasporic lens worth mentioning. The idea of Jews and Arabs sharing land and living alongside one another is described as a lofty aspiration by Ashkenazi thinkers such as Einstein and Ben-Yehuda, rather than the long and complicated diasporic reality from which the majority of Israeli Jews descend.

10. The more unfortunate result of McCann’s attempt to sidestep criticisms of cultural appropriation by using “real people”—aside from the fact that in this case it did not work—is that it prevents him from doing almost any imagining. The book is not a novel, but rather a large volume of meticulously collated research on countless topics with dubious connections to the plot and to each other. McCann has proven himself a talented storyteller elsewhere, but shows very little of that in this book. There are various plays with form, but not much content.

11. Close to a third of the novel’s 1001 segments are just one sentence long; often something we have heard already, or a mundane detail.

12. Several segments are simply long lists. Names of bodies of water. Actions forbidden on the Sabbath. Names of IDF operations. Countries that bar the entrance of Israelis. The names of alcoholic drinks in a Mandate-era golf course clubhouse. Fruits and vegetables growing in Bassam’s garden. 37 random types of birds. 39 different names for solitaire.

13. Other sections seem to be leftover research from his previous books. Sandhogs (This Side of Brightness), aviation and George Mitchell (Transatlantic), Philippe Petit (Let the Great World Spin), Nazis in Czechoslovakia (Zoli). We also get the dictionary definitions and etymology of French, Latin and Greek words, various historical anecdotes about birds, water, math, chemistry, Einstein and Freud, poor quality photos, and speeches delivered by Rami and Bassam that are very similar to versions you can find online.

And, of course, more than anything, the comparative art musings. Did you know that Dame Helen Mirren was once a part of a troupe of actors which performed in the Sahara desert? That Constantine Brancusi’s bird sculptures are among the most beautiful works of art of the twentieth century?

14. Of all art forms, music receives the greatest attention. One of the few compelling sections of the book concerns the late Dalia el-Fahum’s unfinished dissertation project. She attempted to meld sounds she had recorded in the West Bank with a piece by Olivier Messiaen. Her creative struggle is beautifully described:

“She was disappointed by [the recording of Israeli bulldozers ploughing up olive trees] neutrality having hoped that there would be something more brutal there…she went back and forth on the mixer controls, trying to isolate the harshest spots…but isolating the sounds made them particular, even comic.”

The most generous reading of this book is that by travelling back and forth in time and between topics and by repeating sentences and events the author tried for a gestalt effect, similar to what DJs hope for when they mix music.

15. The most compelling section of the book is when the author describes Rami and Bassam imagining very different lives for the soldier who killed Bassam’s daughter. Bassam imagines him in a Tel Aviv seaside apartment, with “modems and television screens and wires neatly tucked behind the wall. Soft rock music coming from hidden speakers.” Rami imagines him in a Negev town with “curling linoleum rolling up against the tassled carpet.”

16. For many native Israelis and Palestinians born after the first Intifada, who happen also to be the first generation of digital natives, the premise of this novel—that Israelis and Palestinians are driven by blind hatred and a desire to kill “people they do not know,” and that this could be alleviated if only the right foreign-funded NGO helped them to communicate with one another—is laughable. Our generation has been communicating online since we were children, and has been exposed to the other’s reality through countless video clips. It is particularly jarring, that a novel full of Christian symbolism presents a conflict rooted in the legitimate national aspirations of both sides as an unnecessary manifestation of ignorance.

17. One wishes that an author with such an uncommon imagination would have chosen to care less about staying on the right side of the current climate in publishing, about numbering sections, about advertising the mission statement of one foreign-funded NGO, and about teaching us about Jesus; and chosen to care more about imagining one specific story about the conflict.

18. Throughout the text, the author provides us with instructions to “think of it like this,” or “imagine, then.” An author so talented should spend more time imagining and less time ordering his readers to do so. It is no surprise that the strongest sections in the novel are the very few in which the main characters—and by extension, the author—are allowed to imagine.
In the novel, Rami says that “Nobody can listen to me and stay the same. Maybe you will get angry, or offended…but at least you will not stay the same.” More than anything, this novel left me indifferent. If it is music, then it is the track the DJ plays when he wishes to signal politely to the dancing crowd that it is time to get off the floor.

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Shani Boianjiu

Shani Boianjiu is an Israeli writer and translator. She is the author of the novel 'The People of Forever Are Not Afraid'.

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