Smaller and Smaller Circles by F.H. Batacan: A Book Review


“We are all powerless in the face of evil. No, no, that’s not true. We are powerless when we wait for other people to act on our behalf. Yes, that’s it. The truly powerful man is the man who stands alone.”

I had never yet read such a mystery/ crime novel in Filipino, so I  must join my fellow  Filipino readers celebrating and heralding  this book  as the first ever Filipino crime novel.

I am even drawing a theoretical conclusion  that its being the first crime novel  could have been  one of the reasons leading the panelists of the Carlos Palanca Grand Prize ,  National Book Award , and Madrigal-Gonzalez Award  to give the award . Nevertheless, I would have mulled over the two reasons if I had been one of those respected panelists: It is well-written and timely and relevant to the present state of the country.

In my book, crime novels are blood-curdling and nerve-racking in my imagination. I can’t stand pages scattered with horrendous, horrible, hideous, and heinous scenes. They are so intense that I could collapse with cardiac arrests as though I were a witness to a crime committed by a killer, trembled with fear that I might be the killer’s next victim. I would say that one of the best examples of such novels   is Native Son by Richard Wright. Read it! I promise you. At the same time, crime novels are   unpredictable, puzzling, and brain-bashing to the extent that they would tax my stamina, and I would be at the end of my wits. But, in the end, you would let go of the breath you would have been holding for a long time. Therefore, Smaller and Smaller Circles, however, did not meet those characteristics or elements I have been borne upon. It is not that extremely arresting in that a faint-hearted would die of it. I would just remember the cliché that curiosity kills the cat. In fact, I did not even give a fig about who the criminal is, nor did I feel that there is a case the sleuths have to resolve. Rather, what I felt were the deeper and compassionate   friendship between Father Saenz and Father Lucero – Could I assume it a bromance if I were malicious? – the dog-eat-dog atmosphere in the National Bureau of Investigation, and  the powerful hierarchy of Catholicism in the Philippines. The crime case is finally emphasized in the climax, but not that revealing as what I had expected. My reaction was just that I nodded in agreement with both Father Lucero’s and Saenz’ final whodunit conclusion. In fact, anyone could guess the identity of the criminal.

Like the other writers in general, it took the author many years to finalize it. The first time she wrote it was in 1996 when she was still in her mid-twenties; the second one was in 2013 when she was in her forties. As a matter of fact, her desire to continue writing it was inspired by her deep-seated anger toward the miserable state of the Philippines due to callousness, complacency, and corruption as she put it in her acknowledgments. Consequently, the book is steeped in simply beautiful   sentences with a profound impact. They are not jaw-breakers to assimilate. There is no such feeling as “stuck in between the lines”. Rather, reading the next lines is unruffled. However, the author may have come to the point that she was at loss for any ideas. I guess it is somewhere in her first book. So, it could be obvious that she may have patched this part with her second part. Nevertheless, it’s neither here nor there since such situation happens to all writers. It is just a matter of creativity.

The most important thing that would lead me, as a panelist, to consider it deserving of those literary prestigious awards above is how the author thought about the characters. The characters represent each unit in society such as the two Jesuits who happened to be liberal and crusader against   hypocrite priests in the Philippine Catholicism, the incorrigible   director of the NBI surrounded by sharks in the institution, the reporter who is hungry for factual information, the poor families of the criminal’s victims: All simply paint the real political, economic, and social state of the Philippines as what the author must want to convey to her readers. Therefore, the recurring themes are pivotal rather than its whodunit concept.

This novel was published in 2002.It has been reprinted four times since the book was, needless to say,  hyped up by the  literary award-giving  bodies, not to mention some  book club sites like Goodreads. No wonder it has still been one of the best-sellers in some prime book stores in the country.

 It occurred to me that:

*Another interesting thing about this novel is that both protagonists are priests and forensic experts by trade. It’s a common perception in the Philippines that priests only say homilies and prayers.

*I didn’t like the ending. I have read and watched it many times.

* Could anyone tell me where in the world psychopaths don’t exist? Hahaha

Rate: 3/ 5 stars ( I liked it.)