When the body of an adolescent boy is found, eviscerated with heart and penis cut off and face skinned, at a city landfill in Manila, it seemed like just another unfortunate though brutal crime. But when bodies sharing the same signs and markings start showing up every month at the landfill, the head of the National Bureau of Investigation (Manila’s version of the FBI) starts to think that there may be a serial killer on the loose despite popular beliefs that serial killers don’t exist in the Philippines.
Desperate to find answers to the horrific killings, Director Lastimosa seeks expert help outside the Bureau in the form of anthropologist/forensic expert Father Gus Saenz and his colleague, Father Jerome Lucero.
When not teaching at a university, Father Gus Saenz, who is a Jesuit priest, is busy examining and identifying the bones of victims who “disappeared” during the Marcos Administration. His extensive education and training in physical anthropology and forensics abroad have made him an asset in private and public sectors involved in the examination and identification of bodily remains in the form of bones. Fr. Gus is often assisted by his protege and friend Fr. Jerome Lucero, who is a clinical psychologist trained in reading people and understanding their personalities.
At the request of Director Lastimosa, Fr. Saenz and Fr. Lucero are faced with the challenge of not only trying to solve the series of killings but also working with some uncooperative members of the Bureau. Through interviews and forensic and ocular observations, Fr. Saenz and Fr. Lucero piece together the shared profiles of the victims: adolescent boys between the ages of 12 and 14 years, skinny and small for their age and probably residents of slum communities beside the landfill who make a living from scavenging recyclable scrap materials. All the victims were found among garbage in the landfill, with their intestines, hearts, and penises cut off and their faces peeled off with a sharp instrument. Fr. Saenz and Fr. Jerome conclude that the murderer is most likely a smallish male, who for one reason or another has issues with identity or anonymity, as evident in his obsession with his victims’ faces.
When I first heard about F.H. Batacan‘s Smaller and Smaller Circles, I was excited. Here was a crime fiction novel with elements of forensic anthropology set in Manila and written by a female writer who graduated from my alma mater. The novel, which was first published in 1997 by the university press, is a winner of the Philippine National Book Award and the Carlos Palanca Memorial Award. Smaller and Smaller Circles is edited, revised, and republished in 2015 by Soho Press. It is billed as the first and maybe only crime fiction novel set in the Philippines written by a Filipino.
The novel, though classified as crime fiction, is actually a critique on the negative aspects of Philippine culture, specifically, the blatant corruption in the government and the church, the prevalence of accusations against priests of child molestation, and secrecy; issues on poverty, such as the government’s inaction in alleviating it and the nationwide acceptance and apathy towards it; and inequality among members of the lower and upper classes. The novel also focuses on the country’s Padrino system, in which one’s career promotion is based not on merit and achievement but on connections, friendships, or affiliations. In the guise of writing crime fiction, F.H. Batacan vents her frustrations with the corruption and shortcomings of the government and church and the negative attitudes of the Filipino people.
Despite the intriguing premise and my initial excitement, I found the novel quite predictable. As the novel’s raison d’etre seems to be to criticize the government, the crime fiction part is not as complex as it should be. Although the murderer’s actions and background story are tragic and horrible, the character and his motives lack depth and authenticity. Speaking of authenticity, there are several characters who don’t seem quite real because of their extraordinary skills and talents, lack of ambition, or overly humanistic nature. Moreover, though the novel is well written, the author tends to over describe many mundane things and actions, losing focus on what really matters.
I hate to admit it, but other than the works of F. Sionil Jose, Butch Dalisay, Cristina Pantoja Hidalgo, and of course, Jose Rizal (and a comic book series by Budjette Tan), I have not read a whole lot of novels written by Filipino writers. Recent novels by Filipino authors I tried reading I found quite pretentious, pseudointellectual, and downright annoying, as if each writer was trying to prove to the world how learned or well versed he/she is instead of focusing on creating an interesting and original story. Although a bit disappointing, Smaller and Smaller Circles is encouraging in that such genres are beginning to exist among local publications. One can only hope that it will inspire budding local writers to experiment with different subjects and genres.
Smaller and Smaller Circles (2015) – F.H. Batacan
Soho Press; 287 pages (paperback)
Personal rating: 2.5/5