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.