Novel Experiments

September 21, 2020 in Library Corner

Every book browser knows that libraries and bookstores typically separate books broadly into fiction and non-fiction – fiction in these bookcases and non-fiction in the bookcases over there. But some adventurous authors, experimenting with new forms of narration and storytelling, write books that blur the border between fact and fiction. This is seen vividly in two exceptional, recently published “non-fiction novels”: Apeirogon by Colum McCann, an international award-winning author from Ireland, and The Convert by Stefan Hertmans, a celebrated Belgian-Flemish poet, essayist, and novelist.

Set centuries apart, Apeirogon and The Convert both center on characters who long for safety from religious/political violence, an evil which seems to plague every age. Neither book presents a straightforward plotline; readers must follow the authors along unconventional (but rewarding) paths.

Apeirogon’s Many-Faceted Story

The core of Apeirogon is the unlikely but real-life partnership between Rami Elhanan, an Israeli Jew, and Bassam Aramin, a Palestinian Muslim. These two peace activists travel the world together telling their stories of devastating loss again and again, hoping to inspire action that will prevent future tragedies. In 1997, Rami’s thirteen-year-old daughter Smadar was shopping in Jerusalem when she fell victim to Palestinian suicide bombers. Ten years later, Bassam’s ten-year-old daughter Abir died on her way to school, shot with a rubber bullet by an Israeli soldier. Rami and Bassam narrate their own stories in two segments at the center of Apeirogon, but elsewhere in the book, with the two fathers’ consent, Colum McCann imagines their words and worlds.

In geometry, an apeirogon is a polygon with a countably infinite number of sides – like a story that goes on forever, says McCann. In an allusion to Arabian Nights – an anthology of 1001 tales told by the royal bride Scheherazade to ward off death – Apeirogon is comprised of 1001 numbered segments. Some segments are a single sentence and some, like Rami’s and Bassam’s interview transcripts, span pages. Some segments relate seemingly random bits of information about migratory birds, slingshots, music, and other topics, but these segments in fact connect to elements of Rami’s and Bassam’s experiences.

The Convert’s Journey to the Past

The Convert is a captivating blend of historical fiction and memoir, sure to resonate with those who wander through ancient towns imagining their long-ago inhabitants. Stefan Hertmans, a longtime resident of the French mountain village Monieux, became curious about his town’s history. He was astonished to learn that Monieux is linked to a nearly 1000-year-old letter discovered in the famous Cairo Genizah.

Written in 1096 by a Rabbi Joshua Obadiah, the letter is a request for hospitality and support for a young impoverished widow, a convert to Judaism. The widow and her late husband David had lived in Obadiah’s village while hiding from her powerful Christian family. During anti-Jewish rioting, David was murdered in the synagogue, and the murderers took captive two of the couple’s young children. Rabbi Obadiah asks that Jews of any community treat with kindness the traveling widow, the bearer of his letter.

According to scholars, this fascinating letter originated either in Monieux or Muñó (Spain). (Written in Hebrew without vowels, the letter arguably names either place.) Following the Monieux thesis, Hertmans maps out and replicates the arduous journeys of the unnamed woman (whom he calls Hamoutal) as she and David fled from her angry family and then later after she departed Monieux. The Convert is a mostly imagined reconstruction of Hamoutal’s life story, alternating with Hertmans’ reflections, research, and experiences as he follows in her footsteps.