Priding itself with a historic feat in Philippine literature, F.H Batacan’s debut novel Smaller and Smaller Circles merits distinction with its emergence as the first serial crime novel in the country, exploring rarely tackled themes with new yet evocative treatment. However, its literary brilliance does not lie solely in its newness: it excels in its timeless sociopolitical relevance, daringly portraying a nuanced crime-fiction mystery in a Third World country plagued with revolting injustice, corruption, and systemic apathy.
The sea of garbage in Payatas, Quezon City, a workplace for destitute adults and children scouring the dumpsite for a living, rots with nauseating reek. Here takes place the opening chapter of Smaller and Smaller Circles where something beyond the stench of decay, wastes, and excrement is rotting with putrescence: the mutilated body of a slum boy.
It appears, this body adds up to a pile of others in a series of gruesome killing, and Jesuit priest and forensic anthropologist Father Gus Saenz and his psychologist friend Father Jerome Lucero are beginning to put the pieces together: a serial killer is out and about, and he’s targeting destitute boys who are killed every first Saturday of the month.
Father Gus struggles to gain a thoughtful attention from the police force when he presented the possibility of a serial killer in the country, his findings and patterns getting easily dismissed by the police saying he’s “been watching too many foreign movies” and that there are “no serial killers in the Philippines”. Batacan purposefully makes this one of the central driving motivations for the priest, which effectively highlights the inadequacy in the justice system in the Philippines, where justice is selective, and only those who are rich and privileged can gain a serious attention from the hard-pressed police. The destitute slum kids and their helpless families are only left struggling against crippling poverty, social inequality, and systemic indifference.
Father Gus’ frustrations on the Church’s protection of a child-molester priest also becomes an interesting subplot, subtly characterizing the priest’s determination to heal broken systems and insist accountability on those who prey on the vulnerable. This, yet again, is a pressing aspect that Batacan has so successfully integrated into the story: injustice and oppression take form in even the most unlikely places, and often, they are left ignored or worse concealed.
Although Batacan’s depiction of the two priests’ physicality may seem less realistic and believable (“beefy arms”, “slim waist”, “wiry muscularity”, “rock-star hair”), the subtleties in both priests’ voice, educational expertise, faith, passions, and dynamic interactions provide just enough authenticity. The juxtaposition of both priests’ religious faith and their brilliance in science makes for an interesting and unique characteristic, and their profoundness extends even to their own individual struggles and purposes, and how they strive to make a change in a very corrupt, broken society.
Batacan also added other strong characters into the mix: a cunning journalist, an astute NBI director, and an egotistic lawyer. This elevates the character dynamics and further depicts the sociopolitical themes in different perspectives of individuals who hold great power and influence in issues of transparency and systemic judicial inadequacy.
Batacan’s prose is well-defined and vivid in the pages. While she may tend to extensively elaborate on details and add overwhelming jargons, the slow pacing in the first half of the novel seems to effectively complement this vivid exposition, and they’re also rather vital to the nuanced characterizations and thrill build-up of the story. By the time the novel reaches the second half, it picks up its pace and becomes a wild, thrilling ride, and all the intricacy established earlier becomes worth it.
A really striking element of the novel also adds up to the thrill: the chilling, first-person voice of the killer presented in intermittent chapters that leaves a growing intrigue among the readers up to the very end. The novel, in fact, opens with an insidious bit from the Killer’s mind ending with the intriguing lines: “I feel like I’m always being watched. I hate being watched.” It turns out, this element becomes a strong driving force of the novel with its hooking, engrossing depiction of the killer’s mind.
Smaller and Smaller Circles may not be entirely flawless and may not be the best whodunit novel, being a little predictable at times, but it is a brilliant depiction of Third World injustice and apathy with the use of engrossing mystery, profound characters, and sharp, piercing dialogues. Batacan’s daring choice to portray such unsettling idiosyncrasies in her debut novel in an intriguing, enthralling manner is already enough to praise her. But the novel itself is written beautifully— crime-fiction intrigue effectively meshed with political profoundness.
It has its timeless impact on whoever willingly absorbs it, and although it is set in the Philippines, readers across the globe can find this book an insightful, profound portal to understanding sociopolitical issues that have affected and are continuously affecting everyone. More importantly, it echoes moral questions that leave us thinking. What are the costs of silence? Of apathy?
In this world, silence is the loudest echo of evil; the moment we choose not to speak out against injustice is the moment we become part of the problem. Indifference is a choice, and the choices of those who have the privilege and the voice determine the very lives of those who don’t. And Smaller and Smaller Circles powerfully left me realizing my own voice.
Indeed, Batacan is not only successful in depicting a story that daringly tackles pressing Third World issues, but she is also successful in infusing hope in the midst of these harsh, unsettling realities. In spite of the blind eyes and def ears, there still are Father Guses and Father Jeromes in the world who are fearless enough to challenge the systems, empathetic enough to help the vulnerable, and hopeful enough to make a change.