Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 9, 2015

The Scatter Here is Too Great, by Bilal Tanweer

The Scatter Here is Too Great The Scatter Here is Too Great is a most impressive debut from its Pakistani author, Bilal Tanweer. Innovative in form, and haunting in its theme, this novel held my attention from start to finish.

As you can see from the cover, the central image of the book is a bullet-shattered windscreen:

The hole at the centre throws a sharp clean web around itself and becomes crowded with tiny crystals.  That’s a metaphor for my world, this city: broken, beautiful, and born of tremendous violence.

One way to give you this account is to ‘name the streets and number the dead.’  Another is to give you this scatter I have gathered to make sense of things, go beyond appearances, read the crystal design on the broken screen.

My mind is a stiff skein of voices.  I will yank out the threads and find the edges.

Listen.

In fragments,  through the voices of Tanweer’s narrators, we learn the stories behind a bomb-blast in the city of Karachi, in Pakistan.  The first voice is childish: a boy explodes into fisticuffs when he is teased once too often – but his family and school are more concerned about his swearing than they are about him beating up another boy.   His ambition is to become a fighter pilot and fight India. Violence is commonplace beneath a veneer of religious respectability.

In the next vignette we see an ageing Communist, Comrade Sukhansaz mocked and harassed on a bus when he begins quoting poetry that belongs in Pakistan’s secular intellectual past.  His idealism conflicted with his family, who fear his atheism in Islamized Pakistan under Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, President of Pakistan from 1978 to 1988 (and also a key character in A Case of Exploding Mangoes by Mohammed Hanif, see my review). Sukhansaz alights from the bus into the Cantt station bombing and his voice is silenced.

His nephew, trying desperately to impress his girl with his mother’s car, witnesses the carnage but must clean the blood off the back of the car so that no one will know he was there.

A writer in the city is knocked off his feet in his apartment and reflects on the autobiography he’s writing for his son.  He despises the poetry his father writes and wants instead to be straightforward, but his life won’t permit it.  He has to write about the virtues of discipline to conceal the fact that he’s an opportunist; he has to be careful not to say too much:

That was the strange problem with writing, you had discovered. Meaning never matched the words and words always evaded the thought.  Before you had started writing, you could picture the clean arcs of your life  You had clear ideas.  But what finally made it onto paper was circular and loopy and joined at the wrong ends with everything else. It messed up the whole picture.  So you abstained from saying too much.

He waits impatiently for his estranged father, who was supposed to visit that day…

Three hoodlums get caught up in the blast.  One had drifted into crime, and having met a nice girl, he wants to change his ways.  He doesn’t get the chance and the ambulance driver who holds his body is traumatised for the rest of his life.  Two weddings are called off, a business fails, and his family is helpless against his superstitious belief that he saw the harbingers of the end of the world, Gog and Magog picking their way amongst the bodies.

It’s only a short book, just 200 odd pages, but the impact is powerful.  Pakistan, a city so violent that its atrocities rarely make the news in Australia, becomes a real place not an abstract news story. Tanweer’s ‘writer in the city’ wants these stories to survive but knows they will not.  The place becomes the place where the blast was. :

The bomb was going to become the story of the city,  That’s how we lose the city – that’s how our knowledge of what the world is, is taken away from us – when what we know is blasted into rubble and what is created in its place bears no resemblance to what there was and we are left strangers in a place we knew, in a place we ought to have known.

I read this book as a member of Stu’s Shadow Jury for the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature.   The winner is due to be announced on January 22nd.

Author: Bilal Tanweer
Title: The Scatter Here is Too Great
Publisher: Vintage Digital, 2014
ISBN: 9781448189939
Source: Personal copy, read on the Kindle

Availability
Fishpond: The Scatter Here is Too Great


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