In 1949, German philosopher Theodor Adorno famously asserted, “To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.” Of course, the ongoing violence in Karachi is not on the same scale as the systematic slaughter of six million Jews during the Second World War. Nonetheless, violent deaths from ethnic, sectarian and political violence in Pakistan’s southern port are now averaging 3,000 per year, leading the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan to call Karachi a “city under siege”.
This debut book by Bilal Tanweer, a LUMS faculty member, creative writing protégé of Kamila Shamsie, and Life’s Too Short anthologised author, is above all about the pursuit of a satisfactory literary form for representing such violence and suffering, without ever lapsing into “barbarism” or banality. A bomb goes off outside Karachi’s crowded Cantonment Station, and the text represents different characters’ perspectives and back stories in the lead-up to and aftermath of the explosion.
It is hard to describe the form of The Scatter Here is Too Great, but my best attempt might be to adapt a phrase of Sri Lankan author Shyam Selvadurai and call it a novel in five stories. Tanweer uses a fragmented structure to explore Karachi’s terrible beauty, while always remaining alert to the teeming narratives of the city’s inhabitants. He creates a set of interconnected but freewheeling stories in which the protagonist of one crops up again as a minor character in another story, and themes or motifs overspill apparent borders in such a way as to challenge closure and the neat packaging of the short story form.
In doing this, Tanweer echoes — whether consciously, unconsciously, or by coincidence — Selvadurai himself, Pakistani-American Daniyal Mueenuddin, Nobel-prize winning Canadian author Alice Munro, and the Urdu writer Naiyer Masud. As he writes in his acknowledgements, “A book, above all, is a conversation with other books and stories,” so the dialogue with such literary forebears crystallises his own allusive but original form and ideas.
As well as the five stories that make up this proto-novel, the book is further divided into three large sections, demarcated from the rest by short italicised shards of text. In the first fragment of italics, a bullet hole in a windscreen appears as a crystal pattern, a metaphor for the fractured aesthetics of Karachi. As Nadeem Aslam writes in his blurb, “certain things are more beautiful and valuable for being broken.” In the second, this wound of the bullet hole becomes a window for the eye to peep through, providing “focus, sharpness.” In the final sliver of text, the shattered windscreen is a network of new paths and boundaries mapping Karachi, that “uncharted city.” Thus, the “too great” scattering or disintegration not only leads to things falling apart, but also to beauty, watchfulness, and the charting of that violence through art.
This idea of the importance of mapping the city via art, particularly literature, is explored throughout the volume, and increasingly overtly towards its end. The protagonist of the ‘A Writer in the City’ sections writes against his father’s earlier-generation notion of narrative in which “the world and each object are part of continuous stories ... the universe answered his questions, the past was visible and the future illuminated. Things had reasons and they all connected.” In the world of the bomb blast, by contrast, “there was nothing called true stories. Only fragments were true.” Accordingly, the son writes snippets of non-fiction, documenting the city’s catastrophes, as he believes anything longer or fictional to be “a lie, a fabrication.” Yet he becomes cumulatively more dissatisfied with this broken form of writing, seeing it as meaningless, individualistic, lifeless: “I was sinking deeper ... into the quicksand of my own little islands while the universe moved past me at its own indifferent pace.”
Eventually the writer comes to realise: “Reasons were invented, and stories were reasons that allowed us to connect ourselves to the world, to compose ourselves in ways that others could read. Fragments were true; but we needed stories greater than fragments. We needed stories in order to imagine the mad world we lived in ... Yes, this city was unknown and the noise was great. But this scatter must be gathered. You are listening.”
The ‘novel in five stories’ format allows Tanweer to deploy fragments while simultaneously striving for a coherent narrative. This enables the book’s storied approach to everyday lives in an extraordinary mega city. The final sentence of the book, “You are listening,” has an oral quality foreshadowed at intervals in the text through the imperative verb “Listen.” This perhaps recalls Indian author Vikram Chandra’s book — another collection of interlinked stories — Love and Longing in Bombay, in which an old man, Subramaniam, regales his young companions at the Fisherman’s Rest pub with a series of yarns, always beginning with the same instruction, “Listen.”
Many of the text’s characters are artists. In the first story, which is written in a repetitive, almost incantatory way, using appropriately childish short words and sentences, we see the ‘Writer in the City’ as a small boy learning about the “blackboard we have in our minds” from his father, a publisher of children’s books. As mentioned earlier, we meet this Writer again at various points in the text, now an adult grappling with artistic form. On a bus we encounter a communist poet Sukhansaz and a satirical cartoonist who tries to sketch him as he wildly declaims couplets to mocking commuters. Even ostensibly non-artist characters tell each other stories. For example, a girl makes up fairy tales for her little brother to distract him from her furtively unfolding love affair. And ghost stories, gossip, and rumours abound after the bomb blast, including recurring tales about two men in pink robes scouring the corpses in an apparently joyful mood, who are thought by some to be Gog and Magog, harbingers of the Day of Judgement.
These varied voices from different social classes are rendered very convincingly — some are lewd and sweary, others unreliable, innocent, or grieving. No woman’s perspective is attempted directly, though we get a close sense of Asma’s predicament from the brother, who recounts their Nani screaming at the young woman when her affair is discovered, “oh our honour is destroyed our honour is destroyed. This girl has destroyed our honour. All we had was our honour and this girl destroyed it all.”
The voices can get out of control, and it seems to me that Tanweer does not yet have sufficient power over his technique as a writer to keep all this manageable for the reader (for instance, the novel’s conclusion, with its evocations of a “Bird of Death” is rather incoherent).
One also feels that the structure of the novel, with its interlinking stories, its connecting inter-texts, and the Writer character — all the literary techniques he utilises, in short — is not wrought in a seamless way, and that at times it appears too self-consciously straining to be literary. The long passage I quote above, in addition to being thoughtful and evocative, is maybe somewhat forced. Tanweer should trust in his readers — I am convinced he will have many — to make connections and, in the old creative writing workshop adage, to ‘show, not tell’ them what to think. That being said, there are some very fine moments of writing, such as this description of a character’s experience of what is probably post-traumatic stress disorder after the bomb-blast: “he felt no desire; he felt physically empty, he was just eyesight looking out from his head.”
Ultimately, despite its flaws, I do agree with Indian Random House that the book’s publication “heralds a major new voice from Pakistan.” Like the mysterious cadaver-scavengers, you should pick through the glistening fragments on display here and construct your own meanings from the book as a whole.
The reviewer teaches global literature at the University of York and is the author of British Muslim Fictions: Interviews with Contemporary Writers
The Scatter Here is Too Great
By Bilal Tanweer
Random House, India