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Literary Criticism

Smaller, Myopic Circles

A Review of Smaller and Smaller Circles

by F.H. Batacan, UP Press, 2002

Palanca Memorial Award Grand Prize for the Novel in English 1999

For one who is accustomed to reading Western paperback novels, the ordinary Filipino’s equivalent of such are the series of Tagalog novels that are plain rip-offs of American romance pocketbooks for teenagers.

F.H. Batacan’s Smaller and Smaller Circles is an attempt to reincarnate a mini-version of a Robert Ludlum classic (such as Bourne Identity, Icarus Agenda or Scarlatti Inheritance – all detective novels), if not the absurd Gotham City superheroes-versus-crime concept of DC comics, in Philippine soil.

Indeed, this Pinoy detective novel is a rarity in Philippine literature in English. It entices the prospective reader to get a copy leaf through a new, unique book. However, an honest-to-goodness discerning reader will be frustrated.

The novel starts with the discovery of a child’s corpse – with his face, heart and genitalia gone – in the nation’s biggest garbage dump that is Payatas. Then comes the introduction of the book’s main character: Fr. Augusto ‘Gus’ Saenz, S.J. A forensic anthropologist and methodical detective. Fr. Saenz has the confidence of the Director of the grossly inadequate NBI.

Like the cartoon superhero classic Batman, Saenz has his own version of Robin as a sidekick, another Jesuit in Fr. Jerome Lucero, a clinical psychiatrist. For a villain, Alejandro ‘Alex’ Carlos Jr. is the deranged dentist on a killing spree for personal justice.

With these protagonists are minor characters that complete Batacan’s mode of thinking: a bungling NBI Attorney, a hotshot TV network show writer, a medical-dental team, the villain’s parents in Cebu, and some extras.

The book is now clearly a merry-mix of Batacan’s influences: DC, Archie and Marvel comics, Robert Ludlum and lots of cable television.

Saenz and Lucero take pains to find Carlos the killer the way Ludlum builds up his plot in Bourne Identity. The scenery of Payatas, the inadequacy of the Quezon City Police and NBI, the horribly mutilated boy victims, the fast-paced transition and twists in the novel are well interwoven. Even the high-tech gadgetry, independent detective skills and humor of Saenz the forensic anthropologist hero is plausible.

The plot only thickens when the main characters pursue all possible leads to the killer – without funds and real-life foot-dragging from authorities and cooperating contacts. Despite being fast-paced, you get to make an intelligent guess as to who the killer is in the middle of the novel.

Just like Hollywood inventions, the characterization of Carlos the serial killer’s life is not that exhausted. From being a physically-challenged honor student and sexual abuse victim to UP scholar to dentist-by-day-child-murderer-every-first-Saturday-night is not well-developed such as Ludlum’s Jason Bourne or Batman’s adversary Joker.

Moreover, the ‘unique Pinoy detective novel’ also fails even to attempt an examination of the root cause of the Alex Carlos character. The book is also disturbing since its heroes are Jesuit priests cum forensic and psychiatric investigators – too fabulous to possibly exist.

The book’s climax comes in the form of classic Pinoy justice seen in movies: the villain gets an attempt to kill the bida and the police close in and fire away Kuratong Baleleng rubout style.

Smaller and Smaller Circles definitely has the nation’s landscape of abject poverty in the background yet it remains detached. It may get to be popular among students and even the public according to the UP Press’ convoluted standards that are beyond the grasp of majority of the population; but it is not from the real lives and real gripes of the Filipino masses.

It only succeeds in interspersing French banter, petty-bourgeois humor, and MTV phraseology to enliven things up in the text. Perhaps because Batacan would like to reincarnate the Jesuit priest heroes in a sequel/s ala Ludlum or George Lucas.

Truly, it is quite hard to create any literary piece that tries to project some social reality in fiction. Batacan’s Palanca winner is actually anathema to the nation’s emerging national life and culture.

If the author wanted to get in the league of Ludlum and the Western jet-set novelists, she only succeeds in being at par with other Filipino copycats out to merely replicate the products of Western culture. In the end, nothing new has emerged with the reproduction of Batacan’s first book.

Smaller and Smaller Circles is all of a merry mix of Batman, Robert Ludlum and Filipino petty-bourgeois indifference, if not stupidity. It attempts to broaden a simple plot, but ends up shortsighted in the development of such and its near-convincing characterization.

It is a waste of hard-to-come-by money even for the average UP student.

About imakulit

restless. independent. rock music and classical music, third world poetry and literature, theory and criticism, beaches, sunsets, wide open spaces, sports and running, laughter, art, and photography sustain me. i love to travel alone. it's the best way to get lost in the labyrinth of my thoughts.

Discussion

4 thoughts on “Smaller, Myopic Circles

  1. Also borrowed the same book from the university library and tried reading it because of its novelty as one of the few Filipino novels in the genre. But for mostly the same reason that you placed here, I stopped reading it before even getting halfway.

    The author attempts to write include scenes from grim Philippine social realities but ends up projecting her own idealized image of the same. And for a detective novel, its too melodramatic. That’s what really struck me.

    Posted by karlo mikhail | May 20, 2010, 06:30
  2. Funny how this ‘literary’ review of a fine book (which won all the major literary prizes in the Philippines shortly after it was published) smacks of envy. Frustrated novelists write jaded reviews! If your own book doesn’t get published or isn’t received with the same or ANY acclaim, then hey, go knock down one of the best written & researched Filipino novels!

    Just know that your envy shows like a baggy old pair of panties under a micro mini skirt!

    Posted by Nanay Lynn | May 30, 2010, 08:19
    • Funny how this comment reeks of subjectivism. I can’t place ‘envy’ anywhere in the straightforward review. The theoretical framework is just very simple:

      …literature is historically constituted in the bourgeois epoch as an ensemble of language – or rather specific linguistic practices – inserted in a general schooling process so as to provide appropriate fictional effects, thereby reproducing bourgeois ideology as the dominant ideology. Literature submits to a three-fold determination: ‘linguistic’, ‘pedagogic’, and ‘fictive’ [imaginaire]…. –Etienne Balibar and Pierre Macherey, ‘Literature as an Ideological Form

      Too bad. Being misinformed is even worse than having a baggy old pair of panties under a micro mini skirt. :P

      Posted by imakulit | May 30, 2010, 11:17

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