Author: F.H. Batacan
Publisher: Soho Press, Inc.
Publishing Date: 2015
Number of Pages: 357
Genre: Mystery, Suspense, Philippine Literature, Crime Fiction
Payatas, a 50-acre dump in northeast Manila, is home to thousands of people who live off of what they can scavenge. It is one of the poorest neighborhoods in a city whose law enforcement is stretched thin and rife with corruption. So when the eviscerated bodies of preteen boys begin to appear in the trash heaps in the rainy summer of 1997, there is no one to seek justice on their behalf – until two Jesuit priests, forensic anthropologist Father Gus Saenz and his protege, Father Jerome Lucero, take the matter of protecting their flock into their own hands.
Admittedly, I am not one to feast on works of local authors because of some reservations. Mayhap, my apprehension stemmed from my perceived knowledge of the common Filipino culture. This reluctance resulted to a limited exposure to Filipino literature. Embarrassingly, the only Filipino novels I have read are Dr. Jose Rizal’s El Filibusterismo and Noli Me Tangere. The only reason I read them is because they are part of school requirements.
Ten years after reading Rizal’s masterpieces, I find myself in an unfamiliar territory – I am reading the work of a local author. While passing by a bookstore, I came across F.H. Batacan’s Smaller and Smaller Circles. The book’s interesting cover and title piqued me but I was struck more by the fact that it won the Philippine National Book Award. Indulging in a Filipino book once in a while is a welcome change from the bevy of foreign published books that I have been basking in since I took reading seriously.
“We are powerless when we wait for other people to act on our behalf.” ~ F.H. Batacan,
Smaller and Smaller Circles relates the nightmarish series of murders that has gripped one of Metro Manila’s poorest neighborhoods. The brutally murdered and mutilated remains of preteen boys were discovered among the heaps of garbage dumps of Payatas. The first few victims were written-off because they were unidentifiable. However, after a few more boys wound up dead, the authorities were immediately alerted to the presence of a serial murderer.
Tasked to investigate these crimes is the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI), headed by Director Lastimosa. Due to insufficient manpower in his agency, he tapped the services of Father Guz Saenz and Father Jerome Lucero, two Jesuit priests, to assist them in getting to the bottom of this events. They have barely anything to rely on excepting the murders’ pattern which occurs on the first Saturday of every month. Before they could solve the mystery, the priests are taken on a topsy-turvy ride involving Manila’s social elites, abject poverty and its distorted bureaucracy.
As a Filipino reading a Filipino book set in the Philippines, I barely had any expectations on the book. To be honest, it was quite a surreal experience because I can easily imagine all the things that were depicted in the book. My understanding of Filipino culture and society made it easier for me to appreciate the book. Moreover, the story is closely anchored on the reality that is gripping the grounds of Manila’s sprawling neighborhoods.
For a mystery novel, there was very little in the book that would thrill seasoned mystery novel readers. The murder plot is simple and predictable. It just fell flat. But Smaller and Smaller Circles is more than a simple murder mystery. As one digs deeper into the book, one realizes how dense it is, dealing with a plethora of relevant topics and subjects. It extensively highlighted the major maladies of the Philippine society. The book is about the Philippine society in general. Batacan’s vivid portrayal of Filipino society is one of the book’s highest achievements. She was skillfully able to capture the attention of the readers with her realistic and straight-forward descriptions. This made it easier to picture and grasp the events depicted in her work.
The primary issue that was highlighted is the abject poverty that has plagued a majority of the country’s citizens. The horrors emanating from poverty are fully depicted in the novel. From the poverty that ailed millions of the Filipinos arose numerous issues that the common Juan dela Cruz deal with. It was quite astonishing how Batacan was able to embody these issues in the various families involved in the story. Some of these issues include teenage pregnancy and premarital sex, juvenile delinquency, illiteracy, and the inescapable reality of bearing more child than one is capable of handling. But what is jarring about this reality on poverty is the government’s
The book showed what ails the Philippine government such as nepotism, and the connection system. Getting promoted in the government is not about who you are but rather about who you know. Although the book is set in 1997, these corrupt practices in the government are still present and existing in the current period. Other recurring themes in the book are sexual abuse and pedophilia.
“Some things are better dealt within the cleansing light of transparency and openness rather than in the darkness of secrecy.” ~ F.H. Batacan,
Indeed, the book dealt on a variety of dark subjects. However, in going back to the minutest unit of society, Batacan was able to showcase how deeply anchored Filipino culture is on family and family values. Smaller and Smaller Circles is as Filipino as it could get. But having family-oriented society has its drawbacks. Individuals are often afraid of opening up about sensitive topics for fear of being judged and besmirching one’s family’s reputation. Other families tolerate the unpleasant behaviors of some of their members. The Filipino family is a truly a complex study.
Understandably, no society is perfect. Every society is beset with its own set of issues, both external and internal. The Philippine society that Batacan painted a picture of in her work is close to reality. However, she poured so much energy on painting a bleak picture of one side of the Philippines that she failed to portray the more positive side of the country. The picture she painted of the Philippine society is as horrific as the murders perpetrated.
How she represented the different strata of society was also unsettling. The poor are described as trash scavengers and are vulnerable to abuse. The rich pour their money into charitable institutions but don’t bother validating where their money really goes. The middle class, meanwhile, are stuck in a constant struggle to outwit others to get ahead of them. There was very little legroom to declassify or reclassify each class.
The book fell flat on some aspects but overall, it is a good book. It went over-the-top graphic in describing the murder scenes but it is in a way effective in its delivery of the story. It painted a vivid picture of Philippine society and it is as Filipino as it could get. In a few hundred pages, Smaller and Smaller Circles was able to capture the true atmosphere of the Philippines. F.H. Batacan brilliantly showed how the country is deeply anchored on two important units – the family and the Catholic Church – whilst juxtaposing it with the horrific issues that constantly plague the country. F.H. Batacan wrote a compact but dense book which could signal the start of a new journey for me.
Recommended for those who like murder mystery novels, those who are keen on understanding the culture of a different country, those who are interested in Asian literature and culture, and those who like vivid and graphic descriptions.
Not recommended for those with queasy stomachs, those who dislike predictable mystery novels, those who dislike books that are filled with dark subjects, and those who are looking for gripping and thrilling mystery novels.
About the Author
Maria Felisa H. Batacan was born in Manila. A journalist and crime novel writer, she is more renowned overseas as F.H. Batacan.
Batacan took up Bacherlo of Arts in Communications in the University of the Philippines. She also took up her Masteral in Art History from the same institution. She was a fellow at the 1996 Dumaguete National Writers’ Workshop. Before turning into a broadcast journalist, she has worked in the Philippine intelligence community for ten years.
Her 1996 manuscript of Smaller and Smaller Circles won the Don Carlos Palanca Memorial Awards for Literature Grand Prize for the English Novel. However, it was only in 2002 when the book was fully published. The book won the Philippine National Book Award and is widely regarded as the first Philippine crime novel. The novel also won the 2002 Manila Critics’ Circle National Book Award and the Madrigal-Gonzales Best First Book Award in 2003.