Smaller and Smaller Circles by F.H. Batacan. This review is by John Cook

Batacan

This book in its present form has had a long gestation. Here is a note that traces that development.

‘The first edition, published by the University of the Philippines Press, won the Philippine National Book Award, the Carlos Palanca Memorial Awards, and the Madrigal-Gonzalez Best First Book Award. These are surprising awards for a novel in a genre not generally affiliated with prestige — indeed, one that more often than not shirks the confines of literary prestige. There was clearly popular and critical demand for an American-style Filipino crime novel. For her American debut, with Soho Press, Batacan expanded the novel from 155 pages to 355, an extension that helps draw out the tension of the hunt and slow down the increasingly smaller circles that Saenz and Lucero trace around their suspect. The 2015 edition retains the taut pacing of the 1999 edition, but expands the social world of the novel to give the reader a sense of the wide range of Manila denizens, from aggressive investigative journalists to cocktail party elites, from dedicated secretaries to well-meaning health workers in Payatas.’

I became aware of this book when reading a review of its recent American republication and am lucky enough to have a Filipino connection. I have visited there and am nanong to my now adult god daughter. In fact, she bought me my copy and sent it to me via a mutual contact. I was informed that bookshops in Manila were running out of copies, it is so popular there.

It is an example of a now well-worn genre, the serial killer. This is/was considered a novelty in the Philippines in 1999 though Batacan indicates through her book that it simply may often not be reported or recognised as such. She says she had worked in the intelligence community in Manila and has indicated her experiences with the notorious Filipino bureaucracy laid a foundation for her original 1999 publication. The book opens with a priest who ministers to the families and young of smoky mountain Payatas. He is led by children to see a hand poking through the rubbish and investigates to find a 12 year old boy who has had his head bashed, then had his face flayed off, his heart and genitals removed. The body is crawling with maggots and flies and rats have already done their work. It is a truly scarifying piece of writing and there is no shortage of similar to come.

It remains to be seen what local and national police and officialdom will make of this discovery and whether still preying killer can be caught out. The central investigative characters are two Jesuit priests (Saenz and Lucero) who work at a local University, one with specialisation in Forensic Anthropology (conducts autopsies) and one with specialisation in Psychology and Sociology. These two risk a deal in the face of mixed disinterest and genuine concern on the part of investigative offices.

There is a story that is largely well and grippingly told. There are three main influences bearing on it. One is a general commentary on the conditions of the nation and its people with huge variations from life on smoky mountain to a night out at an opera premiere, a second relates to the mixed responses of the Roman Catholic church to the plight of so many poorer people and a third is an examination the psychology of the killer and how it may relate to the endless cycle of sexual abuse especially at the hands of persons of trust.

The treatment of the local Cardinal Menenses very swiftly brings to mind the very recent cornerning and challenge of Cardinal Pell. I am unaware of any matching scandal in the Philippines but would not be surprised if it were the case.

There are a number of interesting devices employed. One of these is starting off with the confession of the killer (unkown) and another is the use of Chapter markers signalling the killer’s awareness of the progress of the investigation within circles (as in the title) designed to show the focus closing in on the nexus of the story.

The book was originally written in English as this is the dominant publishing language in the Philippines though some Tagalog remains peppered throughout. This is no problem and helps to set the tone for the sweaty locale and the love of point-point street food.

This is not a great novel but certainly very good with an engrossing if disturbing story line enlarged by addressing a range of surrounding issues both directly and indirectly. If you can score a copy, I recommend it.

 

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