Title: Smaller and Smaller Circles
Author: F.H. Batacan
Genre: Mystery, Crime, Suspense, Filipino Literature
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
Smaller and Smaller Circles is unique in the Philippine literary scene – a Pinoy detective novel, both fast-paced and intelligent, with a Jesuit priest who also happens to be a forensic anthropologist as the sleuth. When it won the Carlos Palanca Grand Prize for the English Novel in 1999, it proved that fiction can be both popular and literary.
F.H. Batacan has a degree in Broadcast Communication and a master’s degree in Art Studies, both from the University of the Philippines in Diliman. She has worked as a policy researcher, broadcast journalist, web designer, and musician, and is currently a journalist based in Singapore. She previously won a prize for her short story “Door 59” in the 1997 Palanca awards, and her work has appeared in local magazines, as well as in the online literary magazine Web del Sol.
Smaller and Smaller Circles is one of those rare one-of-a-kind books that you discover by some lucky stroke of fate and treasure for a lifetime.
This probably sounds like an exaggeration, but it’s certainly true for me because:
- It’s written by a Filipino author. We don’t exactly have a bazillion authors here spewing out books of all kinds for us to read every day. (Well, I suppose Wattpad stories are all the craze nowadays, but I’m not part of the target audience and am not interested in reading any of them for now.) In this third world country where finding a practical job is the norm, there aren’t exactly a lot of people writing fiction (although, again, this seems to be changing because of those Wattpad stories). So when you find a good fiction novel written by a Filipino, it’s definitely a nice surprise.
- It’s a crime novel. Do you know how many crime novels I’ve heard about or read that were written by Filipinos? I can think of probably less than five at the top of my head…and I know my Pinoy lit knowledge is limited. However, at a recent Meet the Author event I attended with friends, the Pinoy author we talked to mentioned that we severely lack novels in the crime genre.
- It’s not just a crime novel, but one that fits perfectly in the Philippine setting. It deals with a serial murder that occurs in the slums and the descriptions are so vivid that I could imagine myself trudging through Payatas along with the priest and the children in the midday sun, amidst the heat and the smell, right up to the part where they discover the first body. The revulsion and horror is so real that I had to close my eyes for a minute to calm down.
Smaller and Smaller Circles gave me chills. It wasn’t just the murders and the gruesome way they were carried out. It wasn’t the fact that the victims were kids, dying, one after another, while people struggled to find out who the killer was before he got another one. It wasn’t just the psychological mindfuckery that made my head reel.
It was the reality of it all too. The claims that while the government declares there are no serial murders in the Philippines, how could one ever be sure this is true when people are constantly covering up shit to save their asses? The incompetent policemen, red tape, the politicians who would do whatever it takes to become famous instead of preventing more murders. Those priorities, man. Ugh. The few brilliant people who would do anything to prevent another murder, only to be thwarted by idiots with more power and ambition but have no care for justice. The poor people who had nothing, could do nothing even if murders occurred in their backyards. People who would turn their heads the other way because they were helpless or knew nothing would be done for them because they were nobodies. There was so much truth in the social setting that it disgusted me and made me tear up at the same time. This is fiction, yes, but it’s so realistic that it hurts.
This book isn’t good just because it’s a Philippine crime novel. This isn’t a “love-and-promote-your-own” sort of thing. Okay, maybe it is, but I only appreciate things that are worth it. And it’s more than that. The fact that it makes you think about the truth it represents makes it one helluva book.
The plot itself sucks you in. Despite the fact that I’d already guessed who the killer was early on, I was still thoroughly enthralled by the book. The writing, the twists and turns, the quirky priests-slash-forensic-scientists (!!! That’s certainly an interesting protagonist in the world of crime, don’t you think?), the killer himself were all interesting and well-written.
However, it’s the truth about the justice system that speaks out loudest to me and stays with me, although it’s been a while since I read this book.
The justice system in the Philippines is weak. You only have to look at cases like the Maguindanao massacre, a terrible incident that happened in 2009, which still has not been resolved, despite all the evidence and media coverage. Shit, we’ve got news of witnesses getting ambushed and killed. (Paging the witness protection program, if you exist or whatever, you’re doing a shitty job.) Or a case such as the Vizconde massacre, where the suspects were proclaimed guilty, only to be acquitted several years later.
While one cannot proclaim who is guilty or not, the niggling thought that cases can go on for years and years without being resolved is…disappointing. Sad. Horrifying. Families suffer through this shit for years. And those examples are crimes that have suspects and witnesses and evidence. We’re talking about cases that are high-profile because the suspects or victims are famous, and thus reported by the media. What about the cases where common people are kidnapped, raped, or murdered? Do their families ever get justice, closure? Is justice ever truly served in our country?
These are the kind of thoughts you get from reading this book. It makes you uneasy. It definitely doesn’t help you sleep at night, because the knowledge that you aren’t as safe as you thought you were and the probable lack of justice should you ever be a victim (Heaven forbid) is just too terrible to think about. But it’s an eye-opener, and while the truth is terrible, at least you’ve become more aware of how shitty the world can be.
Apparently, a new publication of this book will be out on August 18, 2015. I’m not sure if it’s going to be different from the original story or not. But I will definitely be
stalking watching the bookstores until I find a copy to call my own.