Near the end of Bilal Tanveer’s The Scatter Here Is Too Great, one of the seven unnamed narrators of this novel-in-stories reflects on his father’s love of classical Urdu tales, like the fantastical Tilism-e Hoshruba, an Urdu epic that follows the conflict between the legendary hero Amir Hamza and the sorcerer Afrasiab. Confronting his own failure as an author and his retreat into the more concrete world of journalism, he writes: “My father imagined the world and each object as part of continuous stories. In his stories the unfounded were found, the universe answered his questions, the past was visible, and the future illuminated. Things had reasons and they all connected.” In contrast to this belief in the unity of reason and experience, he claims that all true stories are fragments, and anything longer is no more than an outright lie. At first glance, the stories in The Scatter Here Is Too Great, with their shifting narrators and their multitude of voices, appear to confirm this belief in the primacy of the fragment, the unfinished, unexplained story. Each chapter is fragmentary but luminous, propelled by Tanweer’s effortless gift for inhabiting a multitude of narrative voices, and it is only slowly that the reader begins to understand why it is these stories that have been chosen, and what the larger narrative is that they tell.
The stories are loosely arranged around a bomb blast near Karachi’s Cantt Station—or, rather, around the lives of two men killed in the blast. The novel’s structure is loose, and, until the very last chapter, elusive. Where a more traditional narrative might have tried to excavate the lives of the dead, to reveal their inner lives through their relationships, or, on the other hand, to find the reason behind the terrorist attack, Tanweer takes a different approach. While the novel is grouped into two sections, each named after one victim—Sukhansaz, a Communist poet persecuted by Zia ul-Haq’s regime, and Sadeq, a schoolboy bully turned small-time criminal—the narrators through whom we see these men’s last hours have, as often as not, no special connection with them. For the most part, they are concerned with other things, and the dead men pass through their lives lightly, barely worthy of remark.
From this structural decision emerges a novel that is a beautiful and melancholy meditation on life in a city torn by random and inexplicable eruptions of violence. Tanweer’s prose speaks in tongues, passing from the angry, embittered artist on a crowded bus, consumed by anger towards his fellow passengers, to the young boy so absorbed by his pet chickens that he innocently and inadvertently reveals the secret of his sister’s forbidden affair, to the pair of young lovers who, after witnessing the bomb blast, think only about how to clean their car so that they can return home without having their forbidden meeting discovered. Tanweer’s writing switches with ease from the bewildered voice of a child describing his family’s losses to that of an angry young man whose failures in love and in life have led him to a career of petty crime and petty revenge, so that each chapter, while connected to the others, feels distinct and whole in itself.
As the interlocked stories progress, the reader becomes uncertain about the passage of time and the facts of the narrative. What seemed a simple story—various inhabitants of the city react to the intrusion of violence into their lives—becomes more complex as Tanweer repeats and changes the same motifs. Two college boys mock the poet Sukhanaz on a bus the day before his death, and, then, in a second vignette, set decades earlier, the college-aged Sadeq, also fated to die in the bomb blast, torments another poet on another bus. An estranged employee of Sadeq’s pauses to help an old man outside of a hospital, and we learn that, years earlier, Sadeq stopped to help a similar old man. And, in the novel’s final chapters, the narrative takes an apocalyptic turn, as Tanweer’s narrators come into contact with magicians, a man who claims to have lost his lower body in a fight with a demon, and two men who may be harbingers of the end of the world. Suddenly the realism of the first chapters is intertwined with the fantastic.
Despite this turn towards the fantastic, Tanweer never entirely succumbs to the temptation to write a story where the lost is found, and the past and future illuminated. While his narrators may grasp at a unified story, Tanweer never quite offers one. Instead, he offers each story as a starting point, from which the reader—or the writer—may find a way back into the world. The novel continues outside of its pages, neither a fragment nor a whole.