The Scatter Here is Too Great by Bilal Tanweer

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Reviewed by Denise Kong

If, as I do, you use Yahoo Mail, it’s impossible to log in without being enticed into clicking on some lurid headline about an outrageous wrong in our world.  Even though I know that these gruesome headlines are created with the intention of maximising “click-throughs” for the sake of Yahoo’s advertisers, I still cave in occasionally to the urge.  It’s the same urge that makes me scroll down to the comments.  Whatever the topic is, it’s not long before people start blaming either immigrants or Muslims.

An alien visitor to the planet might see the number of commentators who think that they have a perfect knowledge of what constitutes “being Muslim” and imagine that we were a nation of students on the sociological and theological nuances of Islamic societies.  Or they might just see a society whose pockets of prejudices have merely shifted from away from targets that are no longer acceptable to a new focus.

For those of us who wish to counter this ignorance, it’s easy to say what we think Islam and Islamic societies aren’t.  Many people realise that Islam not all about extremism and intolerance and refusal to accept outsiders.  But what sort of a vision do we have of what these societies are?  What sorts of values might their citizens hold, what sorts of lives do they live, and how do they relate to each other?

The Scatter Here is Too Great, a collection of interlinked short stories set in Karachi, goes some way towards providing an insight into what life is like in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan.  Its author, Bilal Tanweer, is a gifted writer who arrives with several commendations – recipient of a Fulbright grant in 2007, Granta “new voice in 2011” and fellow at the University of Iowa’s International Writing Program in 2012.

Its cover features an image of a bullet hole in a pane of glass.  At once monochrome, beautiful, violent and complex, it’s an apt metaphor for the story’s contents.

The structure of the book is unusual.  The short stories follow a number of different characters through different times in their lives. Very little clarification is provided regarding when all the incidents took place, or even who they are happening to.  About half way through I got totally lost and ended up skimming all the way through to work out my bearings, returning to the start only after I’d figured out that the “anchor” character is known as “A Writer in the City” and he has three chapters devoted to him, childhood, adolescence and adulthood.  From “Writer” a network of other characters grows: a childhood friend, Sadeq; Sadeq’s girlfriend; Sadeq’s girlfriend’s brother; the writer’s father; the father’s dearest friend, Comrade Sukhansaz; and so on, and so on.  Rather like the bent spider legs of the cracks in the glass surrounding the bullet hole, relationships splay out from the centre, crossing each other, shading into each other.

The different stories are not linked by a conventional plot but by one momentous event: a bomb blast.  Much of the subsequent action explores the way in which the shock waves of this event run through each person.  Some of these moments are instant and some take longer to unravel.  Some characters are more directly affected than others.

The moments of shock are Tanweer’s speciality, which I wouldn’t want to spoil.  I just want to pick out one of the most striking, which concerns illicit love and a drive out to the sea.  The couple witness something terrible on their way, but they know that they can never talk about what they have seen to anyone else because they should not have been where they were.  This brought so many themes together – secrecy, the constant threat of violence on the streets, and a real sense of living in the present, which the pressures of living in Pakistani society bring to bear on its young people.

This last element is one that is woven into the plot in rather a sophisticated way; the pressures on the younger generation to marry for their families’ sakes are alluded to, but not discussed at length. They inform the characters’ actions, but do not form a plot hinge.  Contrast this to the heavy handed way that soap operas thirty years ago used to write in an Asian family “for diversity” and completely ignore them until the time for wheeling out a storyline about arranged marriage.

Similarly, the political pressures and tortures that were faced by the older generation are treated in the same way.  Through this strand, the reader is presented with an important argument regarding the link between1980s US foreign policy and religious extremism in Pakistan today.

There is a great sense of Karachi as a noisy, diverse, fast-moving, dangerous, exhilarating place.  A place of the constant present, emphasised by a structure which I suspect has a carefully constructed randomness that points out the confusion of life and the universality of some of the issues in Karachi society.  It was not this confusion that I found the most frustrating, though.  Having been tempted with one or two searing statements on the brutality and the politics of the Zia years, I was left wanting to know much more about how politics had got the city to where it currently is.   And although several characters were obviously suffering from society’s repression, I wanted to know more about why people would ultimately submit to this.

Still, I know and understand more now than I did before I read this book.  To read this book is to experience an insight into a society, however imperfect, like a view through cracked glass.

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Bilal Tanweer, The Scatter Here is Too Great, (Jonathan Cape, 2014). 978-0224099110 , 224pp, hardback.

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