Jess Row in The New York Times:
Among people who routinely deal with violence, pain, cruelty and injustice — domestic violence counselors, aid workers, paramedics, public defenders, immigrant advocates — there’s a phenomenon known as secondary trauma. It’s also sometimes called vicarious trauma, or empathic strain. In her book, “Trauma Stewardship,” Laura van Dernoot Lipsky, a former social worker, defines it as being unable to live with the knowledge that, despite our best efforts, most of the world’s suffering goes “unnoticed and unattended.” “Still,” she writes, “people who are working to help those who suffer . . . must somehow reconcile their own joy — the authentic wonder and delight in life — with the irrefutable fact of suffering in the world.” Though Lipsky probably wouldn’t embrace the comparison, I want to take the risk of offense and say that this sentence applies almost equally well to many contemporary Pakistani novelists. Pakistan is a country where the fact of suffering is indeed irrefutable, whether we’re speaking of the horrific treatment of women and religious minorities, the use of terrorism — both insurgent and state-sponsored — as a tool of political strategy or simply the persistence of the most extreme poverty in a country that wastes billions on a state of perpetual war. From novelists in such a climate you might expect a response of escapism, or simply escape, but consider, for example, Mohsin Hamid, Mohammed Hanif, Nadeem Aslam, Kamila Shamsie: What unites these very different writers is a stubborn insistence on, in Lipsky’s words, the reconciliation of joy and suffering in the texture of everyday life.
Bilal Tanweer is another such stubborn Pakistani writer, and in “The Scatter Here Is Too Great” he takes the question of reconciliation head-on, as subject and as method. This is a collection of fragments — not quite short stories, not quite chapters — that assemble into a partial, and highly idiosyncratic, portrait of a bombing at a railway station in Karachi, told from the perspective of witnesses, victims, family members, friends, associates, lovers. The exact target and intent of the bombing, and the identity of the perpetrators, are not given, and although there are a few graphic descriptions of the horror of the event — “A man tears away from another burning car with a large scrap of metal sunk into the back of his shoulder. He’s screaming but his screams barely reach you” — the focus again and again shifts away from the scene of death to the daily struggles, fantasies and resentments of the living. Immersed in the story of a young boy whose older sister’s illicit boyfriend is a victim of the bombing — that is, three degrees removed from the actual event — we forget, temporarily, about the chaos and clamor and horror of Karachi and grieve instead for the three baby chicks given to the boy as presents, which he kills, unwittingly, and buries in a flowerpot.