I and the public know
What all schoolchildren learn.
Those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return.
– H. Auden
This excerpt of a poem opens one of the chapters in Smaller and Smaller Circles—and is arguably the novel’s thesis statement.
Payatas, a 50-acre dump northeast of Manila’s Quezon City, is home to thousands of people who live off of what they can scavenge there. It is one of the poorest neighborhoods in a city whose law enforcement is already stretched thin, devoid of forensic resources and rife with corruption. So when the eviscerated bodies of preteen boys begin to appear in the dump heaps, there is no one to seek justice on their behalf.
In the rainy summer of 1997, two Jesuit priests take the matter of protecting their flock into their own hands. Father Gus Saenz is a respected forensic anthropologist, one of the few in the Philippines, and has been tapped by the Director of the National Bureau of Investigations as a backup for police efforts. Together with his protégé, Father Jerome Lucero, a psychologist, Saenz dedicates himself to tracking down the monster preying on these impoverished boys.
Up to the point I read it (first year of college) I hadn’t yet read a Filipino novel that was anything like the genre ‘contemporary’ as I’ve read it before. Most writers seemed to like creating elaborate family histories and took their own sweet time getting to the plot. (This is not a criticism. I like those stories.) Here, however, was something unexpectedly familiar.
A looming threat. Protagonists working on a deadline. A mystery that had you turning the pages to find out what happens next.
In short, this is a pretty good book to start reading Filipino literature with.
Because this is no The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes or Agatha Christie novel. No Elementary or CSI. In those stories, governmental structures or lack of funding and personnel/equipment aren’t trying to hinder you. Most of those stories begin with somewhat of a premise that the authority actually cares; some law enforcer, some gate-keeper of society. In Circles? Nope. Not in the Philippines in the 90’s. Batacan never gives her protagonists breaks like that; she underlines and highlights and bolds the inefficiency and corruption of the system through her characters, who steam with frustration about all the little hoops they have to jump through to help.
The characters, also, are interesting. Firstly, a note on Gus Seanz: Jesuit priest with specialized knowledge on forensic technology. Again, this is no Sherlock, Nancy Drew, or other crime-solver I’ve encountered. There is no twist-and-turn pleasure of a challenge, or even a particular external pressure forcing him to utilize his talents. The closest big-name hero I can think to compare him to is Diane Prince (Wonder Woman) simply because he serves, suffers, and protects out of a sincere and painful desire to help. There’s an analysis waiting to happen if these protagonists naturally arise from collectivist cultures.
Seanz does not suffer a tragic backstory, nor does he do what he does because of a personal vendetta or darkness. It’s who he is; the foolish priest who refuses others’ advice to not try so much, it’s easier. Obviously, I love him.
Batacan also goes out of her way to give space and voice to many of her characters. Especially the victims. God. It would have been so easy for her to have just focused on the case, to let Seanz’s determination be enough for readers to want him to succeed. But the thing is, it’s not his story, and Batacan recognizes that. She gives an entire chapter, meticulously expressive, of the backstories of many of the boys that died, and the family (in particular the mother) they left behind. She casts an empathetic perspective for all her characters, exploring the whats and whys of a corrupt police officer, grieving and frightened parents and even, ultimately, the killer.
Those to whom evil is done / Do evil in return.
There’s a lot of things I like about this book, the biggest one the thematic value that Batacan gives a voice to the voiceless. She points out that so many people don’t have voice several times in the story. Then she gives it to them.
This book was a fascinating case study on what it’s like when the very structures of society are against you. I keeps you turning the pages, wondering, whodunit? And when the answer comes to light, it all snaps sadly into place. The characters are rich, multi-layered, and relatable. The book also gets bonus points for being partially set in Ateneo. (It never says that it is, but, seriously. Katipunan. Jesuit priests. Not a lot to work with there.)
Read an excerpt here. [Book image also via Amazon.]