Colum McCann

Posted by Sue Leonard on Saturday 28th March 2020

Colum McCann’s new novel, Apeirogon tells the true story of two friends who are divided by history, but united in grief for their daughters. Based on intensive research, and interviews with the men, it makes for powerful reading.

This is by no means the first time McCann has fictionalised the lives of real people. In Transatlantic, released in 2013, one section focused on George Mitchell, the American Senator who played such an integral part in the talks leading to the Good Friday Agreement.

After that book’s publication, the two became friends. And one day, Mitchell, who had been a temporary special envoy to the Middle East, said to Colum, ‘You think Ireland is complicated; go figure the Middle East.’

“And that, says Colum, when we meet in a Dublin hotel, “is like a red rag to a bull. I love a challenge.”

He later travelled in Israel and Palestine. There, with a group of people for his non-profit initiative Narrative 4, he had a vague intention of setting a novel there. He met leaders, activists, Entrepreneurs, Palestinian rap stars and Israeli artists, and back home in New York, he started his novel.

“It was about a Belfast woman who goes to the West Bank and falls in love with an ornithologist,” he says, “but it was shite, and I hated it. I explained this to a friend, and she said, ‘What was the most extraordinary thing that happened to you while we were over in the Middle East?’”

The answer was obvious. On the second to last night Colum had met these two ordinary looking middle-aged men, Rami and Bassam. Rami is Jewish and had served in two middle eastern wars; Bassam is Palestinian, and had spent time in an Israeli prison, yet the two became the closest of friends. They’re united in their determination to end Middle eastern violence.

“Sitting in that room, listening to their stories, something went off in my head,” says Colum. “Rami began to speak about the death of his daughter, and I just burst into tears.  She said, ‘well, write about that?’”

He went home and began. But it wasn’t easy. He missed the advice of his father, Sean McCann, the much loved and respected journalist with the Irish press who died 5 years ago.

“He was my first reader.” Remembering that, Colum seems close to tears. “But now my son has stepped in.

“He came in one day and said, ‘Can I read the novel that you’re working on?’ He knew I’d been researching for the best part of a year and he also knew that I was in a little bit of trouble because it was very tough.

“I gave him the first 25 pages, and it took him a while to get back to me. He said, Dad, I was trying really hard to understand what was going on, and then I just surrendered to it. I mean I allowed myself to be confused, ’and that reaction was perfect! I was trying to shake up the reader and knock them around a bit and get them off their balance.”

An astonishingly accomplished book Apeirogon is told in 990 sections. It shifts around, bringing in connected facts about birds; history; rubber bullets, and a myriad of other things, yet the narrative flows beautifully, and becomes an effortless read.

The central stories – a full account of the deaths of the daughters come in the middle. Reading of Abir’s death – and of Rumi searching the hospitals for his daughter, with increasing panic, before finally being directed to the morgue was intensely moving. It reminded me of accounts of Omagh.

“It is about Omagh, and it is about Belfast and it is about the Bronx and it is about Kosovo,” says Colum. “It’s every man and every woman. The function of literature is to confront the heart rate of the world, but at the same time, allow people to experience other lives.

“You take real people and stay true to the texture of their lives. You don’t have to be true to the mercenary sense of the actual facts, because facts shift, and can be misunderstood. One person’s fact is another person’s lie.”

Colum’s career has built slowly, and that’s the way he likes it. He feels sorry for his students at Hunter College who have a huge success with their first work.

“Then there’s pressure with the second book, and that makes it extremely difficult, “he says.

After studying journalism in Rathmines, Colum began his career at the Irish press. He left, deciding to become a writer.

“I was twenty-one. I found myself in a cottage in Cape Cod having brought a typewriter and a lot of paper thinking I was going to be Jack Kerouac, but I realised after 6 months that I had nothing to write about, so I took a bicycle across the United States for 2 years. I was mostly listening to people and entering their lives.”

When he finished, crossing the Golden Gate Bridge about 8000 miles later, he knew he wanted to write the novel.

“I spent the next 5 years trying, and then I went to the University of Texas. It took time, but eventually, after a book of short stories had been published, the first novel appeared.”

There was no instant recognition. Only 2000 copies of the short stories were printed, and the first novel, he says, was no great shakes.

“It was deeply flawed. I got just £1000 for it.”

His first serious engagement with the novel was This Side of Brightness set amongst the homeless in a tunnel in New York.

“The idea was getting to know them and spending time with them.”

Dancer about Rudolph Nureyev got him a Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year shortlisting – but it was Let The Great World Spin, written in response to 911 that gained him a National Book Award in America, along with international acclaim.

I first met Colum at the Listowel Writer’s Week when he was promoting Dancer and was impressed at how friendly and accessible he was to everyone who attended; he seemed totally lacking in ego, and it seems that global success hasn’t changed him. An attentive interviewee, he listens carefully and engages fully, rather than reel off obviously prepared answers.

And this – the need to listen – is one of the novel’s main themes.

“What we have to do if we really want to turn things around is to get people to listen to one another, but most people are not listeners; they don’t listen.”

That’s why he set up Narrative 4, an organization equipping people to use their stories to build empathy.

“It does get people to listen to other people’s stories, and also gets their stories spoken back to themselves, which is a huge radical thing.”

I’ve learned so much about the middle eastern conflict through reading Apeirogon. When I tell Colum this, he laughs.

“If you’d asked me 5 years ago what I knew about Israel and Palestine,” he shrugs. “I had every available stupidity and stereotype that there was. It’s complicated – to try and understand it you hold all these spinning plates, but it is beautiful. The landscape is beautiful, and the history is gorgeous.  I wanted the book to be disruptive, but I wanted people to think about the landscape too.”

What reaction is he most hoping for?

“I want the novel to be an outlier and to be talked about. But what would make me super happy, beyond anything, would be if Rami and Bassam get awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. And I don’t see any reason why they shouldn’t be; that would be so freaking good.”

Apeirogon is published by Bloomsbury, at €14.99. Kindle: €12.36.

Published in The Irish Examiner on 29th February.

© Sue J Leonard. 2020.







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