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Priests, Power and Murder in Manila: A Review of “Smaller and Smaller Circles”

Potential Trigger Warning: “Smaller and Smaller Circles” contains vague as well as detailed accounts of facial mutilation, genital mutilation, rotting corpses and the sexual abuse of young boys/children. 

F.H. Batacan takes us to the Philippines in “Smaller and Smaller Circles” (2015), where extreme economic inequality and rampant nepotism provide the backdrop for a chilling murder mystery. Mainly set in the sprawling slum of Payatas, Jesuit priests Father Gus Saenz and Father Jerome Lucero lend their expertise as a forensic anthropologist and psychologist, respectively, to solve the ritualistic murders of pre-teen boys. The novel is graphic and paints a bleak portrait of life: the boys’ faces are peeled off, hearts cut out, and genitals cut off. The poorest children help their families by going through heaps of garbage littered with hazardous chemicals and medical waste to try and salvage anything valuable. No one cares for and protects them, and a serial killer takes advantage of that fact. Think Criminal Minds, but within the context of the Phillippines in the late1990s. Batacan uses the frustrations and obstacles faced by the protagonists to shed light on major issues in her home country and give a voice to slum-dwellers who are marginalized by society. The book costs $26.95 USD/CAD, but I bought it on clearance at my local Chapters for $3 CAD (plus tax). There is also a 2017 movie adaptation of the same name if you are interested in a dramatized version of this book.

F.H. Batacan is a veteran of the Philippine intelligence and journalism communities. Born in Manila, she evidently has a passion and love for her country. She states that when she wrote and edited “Smaller and Smaller Circles” she was angry “about the state of [her] country” and many of the issues stemming from a rigid class system, previous political instability and bureaucracy.  Specifically, the events in the book occur after corrupt Philippine president Ferdinand Marcos fled the country in 1986. His rule was marked by bloody conflict, rampant fraud and a widening gap between the rich and poor, which are all conditions that are seen to contribute towards some of the conflicts seen in the novel. For example, the main antagonist is able to select and easily kill multiple young poor boys without being noticed because the poor and the middle class are so far removed from each other, while the police, who live on bribes, are grossly incompetent and underpaid enough that multiple similar murders are not connected for many months.  She uses mystery and suspense to create an awareness of the depressing reality of life in the Philippines for many.

Perhaps the best feature of “Smaller and Smaller Circles” is that it does an amazing job of keeping the reader engaged and keeping the plot moving through the clear and dynamic style of storytelling. Her language is plain and direct, increasing the shock value of the murders and ensuring that readers understand that there are people in this world who really live in what are, essentially, garbage dumps. She draws us in right from the beginning, starting the book with a quote by Nietzsche which discusses the value of hiding one’s own inner shame and moving on to a description of finding a dead boy among steaming garbage. In-between these two, there is a quote from an unknown speaker which is at the centre of a large circle (a very nice touch). These small blurbs continue throughout the book, randomly appearing to signal that crucial points in the plot are being reached.

I personally felt that the premise of the book also provides an interesting point of view on the relationship between the (Catholic) church and the state. It is often thought that the two should be separate in order to prevent infringing on one’s personal liberties as well as the allocation of funds towards the promotion of just one belief system. However, the two are inexplicably connected: many Philippine institutions were historically built on/connected to Catholicism (due to colonialism) and during the 1900s the church made “a remarkable comeback”. This is partially the result of the Catholic church’s decision to rid itself of large church estates and the encouragement of Filipinos to join the clergy. It is this connection that allows the two priests to take on a job of solving the murders of children that society really does not care about (they receive help from the police force) and demonstrates the principles of love and compassion that should be at the core of Christian belief. Even though one of the main conflicts is ignored sexual abuse of minors by Catholic priests, Father Saenz is often portrayed as a “better” Christian (more patient, kind and honest, for example) than the Catholic figures who try to cover-up any scandal in the church, which implies that Batacan does not necessarily believe the Catholic church itself is irredeemable.

Another feature of the book is that it is narrated in the third person, but intimately details the lives and thoughts of the different characters. In doing this, as opposed to using first-person narrators, Batacan creates a sense of familiarity while avoiding any confusion that usually arises when the narrator switches. We feel as if we are watching and listening to a close friend, making the plot, even more, engaging for the reader. In addition to this, the reader is able to distance themselves from the disturbing content of the book. While this may be helpful for those who find it difficult to stomach the disgusting acts of violence described, I do think that it makes it easier to also distance oneself from the glaring injustices that many poor Filipinos face. In that case, the mode of narration could hinder the ability of readers to feel outraged and sympathetic, which are sentiments Batacan seems to be aiming to evoke. Still, the detachment allows the narrative to easily sweep across many socioeconomic barriers, providing different viewpoints of the same event and perhaps restoring the interconnectedness that is lost when using one, omnipresent narrator. Ultimately, Batacan’s prose will make you angry, sad and ready to turn the next page.

While I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book and would definitely recommend it, it does have a major failing: the plot is quite predictable. As I said before, it reads like an episode of Criminal Minds: the killer is abused as a child, grows angry and resentful, commits many murders which are used to build a profile, is identified and finally, potentially caught. While the setting and characters were new and different to me, they are ultimately the most unique aspect of this book. They deviate from the conventions of mystery novels, which often include white, Western and pessimistic protagonists. Even the priests, who are unusual detectives, seem to be priests only to connect the problems in the book to a major cultural institution: the Catholic church. They speak and behave like any other brilliant cop or analyst in similar novels. Of course, this could simply signify that these priests are regular people, just like us. However, why do they need to be priests as opposed to ordinary, devout Catholics? I do not think that this choice made the characters any better at conveying Batacan’s message. At most, they made me more curious about the book.

“Smaller and Smaller Circles” is definitely different, in a good way. You will be appalled at the injustice experienced by the disenfranchised and awed at the characters’ will to live on, despite everything that was happening around them. By combining Philippine history with the mystery genre, F.H. Batacan has written a novel that prompts the reader to reflect on the effects of allowing inequality to fester and the conditions that allow this to happen, all the while keeping them interested through 357 pages of action and problem-solving.

Photo Credit: Pixabay


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