Author Colum McCann“I know it’s an odd title for a book. I only ever met two people who knew what the word meant.”

As heard on Today with Sean O'Rourke

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The award-winning Irish author Colum McCann told Seán O’Rourke that he wasn’t sure what the word ‘fiction’ means anymore. He was in studio to talk about his new novel, Apeirogon (you can hear how it’s pronounced by clicking on the audio, above). Seán started with the obvious question – what is an apeirogon?

“An apeirogon is a shape with a countably infinite number of sides. And I know it’s an odd title for a book. I only ever met two people who knew what the word meant.”

I don’t know about you, but I am none the wiser. Colum McCann, who won the National Book Award in the US for his 2009 novel, Let The Great World Spin, has taken the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as the backdrop to his latest work of, well, it may be fiction, or it may not be. The title refers to the fact, he tells Seán, that the political situation in most places is “complex and infinite”.

The book describes the lives of two men, one an Israeli, the other a Palestinian, before and after the violent deaths of their daughters.

“The story of these two young girls who get lost in Jerusalem and their fathers… is really the story of everyone.”

The girls’ fathers become friends and travel the world trying to use their grief to inspire ideas and conversations about peace and belonging. McCann says it’s set in the Middle East, but it could be Belfast and Derry, or The Bronx and Kentucky. This makes Seán wonder how much non-fiction is in the novel and this is where Colum reveals his uncertainty about the word usually used to describe the content of novels:

“I don’t even know what the word ‘fiction’ means anymore. Fiction and non-fiction are curious words to me… I believe in stories and storytelling. But some of it is kind of invented but is very real and I think – I hope – it’s true and honest at the same time.”

My wisdom is further diminished. But that may be the point of it all? The two fathers in the book, Bassam and Rami, are real characters and their unlikely friendship is also real, as is their determination to use their grief as a weapon for peace. So, that may go some way towards explaining how the author can know what ‘apeirogon’ means, but be less sure of what ‘fiction’ means.

Seán wondered what prompted Colum to write this book now. His previous book, Transatlantic, is about Northern Ireland and one of its real-life characters, Senator George Mitchell, said to McCann that, if he thought Northern Ireland was complicated, he should try the Middle East. That was, Colum says, like a red rag to a bull. But the main reason he decided to write the book was that he wanted to know about the situation in the Middle East:

“I’ll be really honest with you – I was so ignorant about what was going on. I really knew nothing. And I went in cold and tried to figure out what was going on.”

There’s lots more in Colum and Seán chat, including thoughts on how the Israeli-Palestinian conflict could be resolved and how the book was written to the soundtrack of Colm Mac Con Iomaire’s Anois an Aimsir/And Now the Weather, as well as an appearance from Colm eile, to play music inspired by Apeirogon. And you can hear all that here.

Apeirogon by Colum McCann is published by Bloomsbury.

Niall Ó Sioradáin

© The Listener 2020

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