The Scatter Here Is Too Great by Bilal Tanweer

A spider web crack is a series of hairline fractures spreading out from a central point of impact. Bilal Tanweer makes this image the motif for his short story collection The Scatter Here Is Too Great. The central point of impact is a bomb blast at the Karachi Train Station in Pakistan. All the stories, eight total, radiate out from and connect back to that one point in time.

Title:  The Scatter Here Is Too Great

Author:  Bilal Tanweer

Publisher: Harper Collins, New York (2014)

ISBN:  978 0062 3044 1 4

 

18781341A spider web crack is a series of hairline fractures spreading out from a central point of impact.  Bilal Tanweer makes this image the motif for his short story collection The Scatter Here Is Too Great. The central point of impact is a bomb blast at the Karachi Train Station in Pakistan.  All the stories, eight total, radiate out from and connect back to that one point in time.

Tanweer takes a “community” approach to the event.  His characters are as interconnected as his stories; appearing, re-appearing and interacting with one another throughout the book; jumping from one story to the next; telling us about their lives before and after the explosion; gradually revealing their thoughts and feelings in first person narratives (with the exception of one story which is told in the third person present tense).  All the narrators are male, predominantly young and speak in voices which veer from self-conscious vulnerability to the cocky arrogance peculiar to young men.

More succinctly:  these people, who we expect to be no more than a group of strangers whose collective bad karma has resulted in them being at the wrong place at the wrong time, know each other.  For example:  there is an elderly man, a Communist poet, who passes through several different stories.  In one he recites his poetry on the bus and is derided by other passengers.  Later we will see him again, on another bus, though the eyes of the troubled boy he sits beside and talks to.  In yet another story we recognize him as the narrator’s grandfather, and then as another narrator’s the father, and then he has a brief cameo as the friend of the main character’s father seen from a distance.  Sadeq, the boy on the bus befriended by the poet, narrates more than one chapter and over time describes to us what is a remarkably depressing life for one whose only advanced into his early 20’s. Through his story we are linked to another young man who was his childhood friend.  And in this way, one thread at a time, we learn about the victims of the bombing. So that when the time comes to tend to the survivors and collect the dead, we have an understanding exactly who each of them is and was in that moment of impact.

Unhelpfully for the purposes of this review, my favorite story is the one that takes place in the weeks after the explosion. The narrator is worried about his brother Akbar, a first responder who develops PTSD as a result of the carnage he confronts in the aftermath of the blast.  Akbar is convinced he saw Gog & Magog walking among the bodies of the dead.  “If  you don’t already know about Gog and Magog, their arrival was supposed to mark the coming of the end of the world… They will bring strife and disharmony and, ultimately the apocalypse to the world.”  Akbar’s brother eventually tracks down Gog & Magog and, while they aren’t exactly what they appeared to be, we learn that “what appears strange and complex becomes even stranger and more complicated once you begin to investigate it.  That’s the true nature of the world.”

That is Bilal Tanweer’s super power as an author.  He has a talent for creating beautiful & strange imagery out of life’s banalities. He’s willing to spend time on the insignificant things we all notice and just as quickly forget. Like a plastic bag blowing in the wind.

My eyes were following the blue plastic bag that floated in between the onrushing cars. It curved sideways, rose and cruised and hung in the air, and finally ran into the path of a pedestrian who slapped it with the back of his hand and pushed it over the edge of the bridge. It limped over it and spiraled like a tiny tornado.

Because, when you think about those men & women entering the Twin Towers on 9/11, or boarding trains in London on 7/11, or riding a bus in Syria on a Sunday morning – they were all having normal, ordinary, even boring, days.  Until suddenly they weren’t.  Tanweer skillfully conveys the individual’s sense of normalcy leading up to a catastrophic event, which is so unfathomable to the reader who already possesses the knowledge of what is about to happen, and then allows the environment to degenerate into the chaos and confusion that must inevitably follow.

The Scatter Here is Too Great was on the shortlist for the DSC Prize.  It was not selected as the final winner by the Shadow or actual juries – mostly because despite its ambition (or perhaps because of it) the book has integral flaws.  The most obvious is how the voices of all the young men blend together as the book progresses. Less obvious, but ultimately more distracting, is how it works too hard at being a “concept” novel.  The opening image of the spiderweb crack is an intriguing one, particularly as the story centers on a bomb blast, and so you want it to fall into place naturally.  But Tanweer felt the need to insert (what I guess you could call) an element of metafiction: a writer who pops up to provide a sidebar commentary on what is happening and why. Tanweer doesn’t seem to fully trust his reader.  He’s created this writer to explain the structural and creative process… and to a point it succeeds. I was surprised at how well all the stories fit together and played their part in the author’s greater narrative plan.  But I didn’t see it until it was explained.  And, like that blue plastic bag, I forgot about it just as quickly.  One of the highest praises we as a society give to an artist is to say that he or she “makes it look easy”.  While The Scatter Here Is Too Great delivers moments of promise, in the end Tanweer succeeds in making it look unaccountably hard.

The Wandering Falcon by Jamil Ahmad

TheWanderingFalconThere’s a lot of talk among bloggers and reviewers about the importance of translation and International literature.  Some of the most concise criticisms have been written by Tim Parks for the New York Review of Books blog.  He makes good points that the idea that translation/international literature opens up  cultures is exaggerated and a convincing case that literature as a whole is becoming homogenized.  This may be true for most Western countries, but parts of the East may be an entirely different matter.  Aspects of some societies and governments may have the unintended benefit of preserving a country’s literary traditions by the simple fact that exposure to outside influences is limited.   In many ways Jamil Ahmad is the perfect counter argument to Tim Parks.  He is a 79-year old former Pakistani civil servant.  The Wandering Falcon is his first novel, written in the 1970’s.  Here is an author who is clearly not connected to the Western literary tradition.

There was a full moon, and it hung half hidden behind the northern cliff.  The moonlight was strong and dazzling to the eyes.  His wife silently pointed at the moon.  A long distance away on the mountain crest, he could see small antlike figures silhouetted against its orb.  There was a long chain of them moving slowly with loads on their backs.  These were the ice cutters.  They were men who lived in the highest village, whose main occupation was cutting blocks of ice from the glaciers and carrying them on their backs down into the valley, where waiting trucks loaded them up and sped away to the cities, to people living in warmer regions.

Take for example the titular character of the novel, Tor Baz,who laughingly dubs himself as the wandering falcon in one of the stories in this collection.  He is always a secondary character.  There is not a single  story in these pages that is all his own.  Ahmad uses him is an unusual framing device, having him make Hitchcock-ian cameos in every story. Tor Baz is our escort and guide.  Through the course of the narrative we learn about the events that led to his birth, his strange upbringing and coming of age.  The author hints at the man he might ultimately become, but he is never given a plotline to be resolved.

Most reviews describe The Wandering Falcon as a collection of linked short stories.  The protagonist of this collection isn’t Tor Baz.  It’s a specific culture .  I have to believe that Jamil Ahmad set out to describe a way of life that once (perhaps still?) existed in the  Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) of Pakistan.  FATA is an isolated region that shares its borders with both Afghanistan and Iran.  And although The Wandering Falcon was written in the 1970’s – before this area became associated with U.S. drone attacks and the Taliban – modern readers will link what they read to the place constantly in the media.

The porous borders reported on the evening news feature prominently in The Death of Camels (my favorite story), but from a flipped perspective.  The Kharots depend on their ability to travel unmolested between Pakistan and Afghanistan with their camels.  They need to stay on the move, using watering holes and grazing pastures located on both sides of the border.  (It’s really a simple equation – staying too long in one place will deplete the area’s resources and the camels die).  This is how they’ve survived for generations.  The closing of the borders equals disaster for their way of life.   Ahmad constructs a heartbreaking portrait of how the tribal structure struggles to function in a world changing too quickly.  On another level he is telling a heartbreaking story about a father and son.

This way of life had endured for centuries, but it would not last forever.  It constituted defiance to certain concepts, which the world was beginning to associate with civilization itself.  Concepts such as statehood, citizenship, undivided loyalty to one state, settled life as opposed to nomadic life, and the writ of the state as opposed to tribal discipline.

The pressures were inexorable. One set of values, one way of life, had to die.  In this clash, the state, as always, proved stronger than the individual.  The new way of life triumphed over the old.  The clash came about first in Soviet Russia.  After a few years, the nomad died in both China and Iran.

By the autumn of 1958, with the British Empire dismantled and the once fluid international boundaries of high Asia becoming ever more rigid, both Pakistan and Afghanistan challenged the nomads.  Restraints were imposed on the free movement of the Powindas, the “foot people.”

In Ahmad’s stories a woman’s fate is usually dependent on the whims of some man – husbands, fathers, brothers and even complete strangers hold the power.  We meet women who are sold into slavery, valued by their husband as less than a performing bear or hunted for adultery.   They make choices, fully aware of the consequences attached to them.  Again, the perspective is different from what I’m used to.  The situations are often brutal, but the women are never depicted as down-trodden.  They show no self-pity.  They are not necessarily unloved.  Ahmad portrays them as dignified and courageous…not as victims.  The men they encounter are not caricatures.  And so Ahmad shows us both right and wrong, hope and despair, honor and depravity – often within the same character.   His judgements are all the more powerful because they remain unwritten.

Ahmad describes events as if he has personally witnessed them, slowly and steadily pulling us deeper into the culture of the “foot people”.  What happens in one story has repercussions in another.  (Much like what happens in one part of the world has repercussions in another).  When I finished I felt I had a better understanding of a place I’ve heard about, but never seen.  Don’t misunderstand me – I am not trying to claim reading The Wandering Falcon made me an overnight expert on Pakistan.  It’s a step in the right direction, though.  And perhaps an American or a British author could have written this book which isn’t even a translation.  But a Pakistani author did.  30+ years later, an American woman has the opportunity to read it and it is completely relevant to the state of the world she lives in.  I think that’s important.  Actually, I think it’s pretty incredible.

Note:  The Wandering Falcon was just shortlisted for the 2012 DSC Prize for South Asian Literature.  In 2011 it was shortlisted for the Man Asian Literary Prize. 

Publisher:  Riverhead Books, New York (2011)
ISBN:  978 1 59448 827 6

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2013 DSC Prize for South Asian Literature Longlist

This year it’s felt like we’ve been inundated with longlists & shortlists for literary prizes.  For the most part I’ve tried to mention those that are significant to translations and international lit.  There aren’t any new prizes, the same lists are being posted, still I can’t be alone in feeling burnt-out?

The DSC Prize for South Asian Literature longlist came out today.  It’s an interesting list. Strange even.  According to Wikipedia (yes, I have the stereotypical American grasp of geography) South Asia consists of 7 countries, though there is an extended definition that adds 5 more.  But if we stick with the 7 core countries the DSC Prize longlist represents only 3 of them.  India dominates in 10 of the 16 slots.  Bangladesh & Pakistan make up the rest of the list.  Except for one author, Alice Albinia, who actually appears to be British.  Bhutan, Maldives, Nepal & Sri Lanka are nowhere to be seen.  Of course, it’s not surprising that  industrialized/industrializing nations – i.e. India – should make a strong showing.  But that’s awful strong.   I don’t know much about the literature of Bhutan, but Sri Lanka seems a missed opportunity.  Added to this the fact that only 2 of the books are translations.

Women, on the other hand, make a strong showing.

  1. Jamil Ahmad – The Wandering Falcon (Pakistan)
  2. Alice Albinia – Leela’s Book (England)
  3. Tahmima Anam – The Good Muslim (Bangladesh)
  4. Rahul Bhattacharya – The Sly Company of People Who Care (India)
  5. Roopa Farooki – The Flying Man (Pakistan)
  6. Musharraf Ali Farooqi – Between Clay and Dust (Pakistan/Canada)
  7. Amitav Ghosh – River of Smoke (Bangladesh/India )
  8. Niven Govinden – Black Bread White Beer (India)
  9. Sunetra Gupta – So Good in Black (India)
  10. Mohammed Hanif –  Our Lady of Alice Bhatti (Pakistan)
  11. Jerry Pinto – Em and the Big Hoom (India)
  12. Uday Prakash (Jason Grunebaum, translator) – The Walls of Delhi (India)
  13. Anuradha Roy – The Folded Earth (India?)
  14. Saswati Sengupta: The Song Seekers (India)
  15. Geetanjali Shree (Nivdedita Menon, translator) –  The Empty Space (India)
  16. Jeet Thayil – Narcopolis ( India)

The links are all (to the best of my knowledge) to the American publishers.  Most seem to have paperback editions available, which is always nice.  Have you read any of the books or authors? Do you have an opinion of the overall list?  Or just want to dazzle with your knowledge of Bhutanese authors?  Claim your place in the comments section below.

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100 Pages – Happily setting aside Chef by Jaspreet Singh

I started this series – 100 Pages – for the books I can’t finish, but which I still think might have merit.  Chef, shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best Book, falls into that category.  I received my copy through LibraryThing’s Early Reviewer program.

So let’s rip off this band-aid quickly.

Kirpal “Kip” Singh, the novel’s narrator, is dying of a brain tumor.  Kip  has been summoned back by his old commander, General Kumar, the Governor of Kashmir.   The General has requested that Kip cook the wedding feast for his daughter’s marriage to a Pakistani Muslim.  These two men have something in their past, something Kip is intent on resolving before he dies.  On the rail journey to Kashmir, he remembers his apprenticeship under the General’s first chef decades before.  He recalls the circumstances which he led him into the army.  An innocent young man, most of Kip’s flashbacks revolve around his attempts to rid himself of his virginity.  So, not surprisingly, from the book’s French flaps we learn that the rift between Kip and the General occurred because of a woman –  a lovely Pakistani woman who washes up on the river bank and is accused of being a terrorist.

But I never actually reached that point in the narrative.  100 pages, over a third of the way into the novel, Jaspreet Singh is still laying the foundation of his story.  The pacing is incredibly slow; the writing is thick and torpid.  The reader spends all his time trapped within Kip’s head and entangled in Kip’s memories. Which is probably the main reason why I was unable to lose myself in Chef.  Kip by turns bothered and bored me.  He sees every woman he meets as a possible sexual partner.  His courting technique consists of approaching the current object of his affection (who, more often than not he is barely acquainted with) and staring at them creepily until they gently rebuff him.  He get’s lots of sexual advice, along with culinary training, from the chef who he serves under – equally creepy.  And while Singh may have felt this to be necessary in order to develop the story – it was more than I was interested in reading.

Ultimately, despite the amount of time spent following Kip’s thoughts, he never became a fully developed protagonist for me.  Every scene is rife with emotional undercurrents that I was unable to decipher.  The prose felt too thick.  Eventually, I just stopped caring.

For me – finishing the first 100 pages of Chef was a struggle.  But not everyone shares my opinion.  KevinfromCanada felt differently.  As did Page247.  Their reviews are well written and worth reading.  They also are, on the whole, positive.

So if anyone is interested in a gently used copy of Chef by Jaspreet Singh – comment below and send me an email at BookSexyblog@gmail.com.  OR, if you’ve read the novel and loved it – let me know why.  Maybe I gave up too soon… maybe it just wasn’t my cup of tea.

Publisher: Bloomsbury USA, New York. (2010)
ISBN: 978 1 60819 085 0

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