When the body of an adolescent boy was found, eviscerated, with heart and penis cut off, and face skinned off at a city landfill in Manila, it seemed like just another unfortunate, though brutal crime. But when bodies sharing the same traits 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 just might 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, a Jesuit priest, is busy examining and identifying the bones of victims who “disappeared” during the Marcos Administration. His extensive education and training abroad in Physical Anthropology and Forensics have made him an asset in both 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, 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, not only of trying to solve the series of killings, but of working with some uncooperative members of the Bureau. Through interviews, forensic and ocular observations, Fr. Saenz and Fr. Lucero have pieced together the shared profiles of the victims: adolescent boys between the ages of 12-14, skinny and small for their age, probably residents of the slum communities beside the landfill who make a living from scavenging recyclable scrap materials. All the victims were found among the garbage in the landfill, with their intestines, hearts, and penises cut off; their faces peeled off with a sharp instrument. Fr. Saenz and Fr. Jerome have also concluded that the murderer is most likely a smallish male, who, for one reason or another, has issues with identity or anonymity, as can be seen by 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, by a female writer who who graduated in my alma mater. The novel, first published in 1997 by the university press, was a winner of the Philippine National Book Award, and the Carlos Palanca Memorial Award. Smaller and Smaller Circles was edited, and re-worked a few years later, and published in 2015 by Soho Press. It was billed as the first, and maybe only, crime fiction written by a Filipino, set in the Philippines.
The novel, though characterized as crime fiction, is more a critique on the different negative aspects of Philippine culture, namely the blatant corruption in the government, and the church, and the prevalence of accusations against priests of child molestation, and secrecy; on the issues of poverty, the government’s inaction in alleviating it, and the nationwide acceptance and apathy towards it; and the inequality among members of the lower and upper classes. The novel also focuses on the country’s Padrino system, wherein one’s career promotion is not based on merit and achievement, but on connections, friendships, or affiliations. In the guise of crime fiction, F.H. Batacan was able to vent all her frustrations with the corruption and the shortcomings of the government, church, and the negative attitudes of the Filipinos.
Despite the intriguing premise and my initial excitement, I found the novel quite predictable. Probably because the novel’s true raison d’etre was to criticize the government, the crime fiction part was not as complex as it should have been. Though the murderer’s actions and background story are both tragic and horrible, the character and his motives lacked depth and authenticity. And speaking of authenticity, there were several characters who didn’t seem quite real, because of their extraordinary skills and talents, lack of ambition, or overly humanistic nature. And though the novel was well-written, the author tended to over describe many mundane things and actions, causing the reader to lose focus on what’s really important.
I hate to admit it, but other than F. Sionil Jose, Butch Dalisay, one novel by 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 I’ve tried by Filipino authors I found quite pretentious, pseudo-intellectual, and downright annoying, as if each writer were trying to prove to the world how learned or well-versed he/she is, instead of focusing on creating an interesting and original story. Though 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