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

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“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.) 

The Man Who Could Not Kill Enough by Anne E. Schwartz: A Book Review

1919345_10206221091788031_3040929295635042686_nYou are on the balcony, taking some rest   after studying for an exam when you notice out the window that there is a man standing beside the light post in front of the building. You will get terrified when you witness him killing a girl. You will get in a panic more when you see him deeply staring and snickering at you. It occurs to you that the man could be a serial killer just the like of the characters you watch in movies. Then, your hair will stand on end when you notice that he points his finger at the ground floor of the apartment building where you stay in. What do you think the man is doing with his finger?

Actually, this is a psychopath test, quite   popular among my Korean students, to determine if you have what it takes to be like Jeffrey Dahmer. (laughs) Read your answer later.

In the past, to determine if one had the tendency to be a criminal was through the shapes of the skull. Cesare Lombroso, the founder of the Italian School of Positivist Criminology and considered as the father of scientific criminology, argued that criminality was inherited and that the “born criminal” could be identified by physical defects, which confirmed as criminal as“ savage,” or “ atavistic”. According to him, you were cut out to be one if you have the following traits: large jaws, forward projection of jaw, low sloping forehead, high cheekbones, flattened or upturned nose, handle-shaped ears, hawk-like noses or fleshy lips, hard shifty eyes, scanty beard or baldness, insensitivity to pain, and long arms relative to lower limbs. (http://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Cesare_Lombroso)However,Lombroso’s theory is considered as a pseudo-science. In short, it has no scientific basis.

When   American serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer made an earth-shattering headline across the globe in 1992, the people were flummoxed how they could know if someone they met on daily basis had the tendency to be like him. They could not get around the fact that someone quiet, reserved like him would be able to bestially kill more than 17 people, mostly Blacks, and preserve them in his own house in that no one in the neighborhood had had the idea of his heinous crime. So, many self-proclaimed experts from different   scientific fields bombastically expressed   their   views ad nauseam until the   people got cross-eyed to whose expertise they had to defer. Eventually, there is one thing they were in common- no one can guess whether a person is a psychopath or not because there are many   behavioral patterns. However, Dahmer’s behavioral patterns were unfairly used as the bases, particularly by parents, to preclude a child’s psychopathic tendency. So, you have the tendency to be Jeffrey Dahmer  if you did or do all of  the following :

  1. You  made fun of animals by torturing them when you were still as young as in elementary because you were amazed at the internal organs of a living species. Besides, you wanted to collect their bones and skeletons.
  2. You barely got along with anybody.
  3. You started  drinking   scotch at early age.
  4. You started to read porn magazines as well as porn videos at early age, so you jerked off many times in a day.
  5. You always had financial problem.
  6. You cannot express your sexual preference because of your conventionally filial atmosphere, so you are in the habit of frequenting at gay bars.
  7. You fantasize people whom you want to sleep with.
  8. You were a drop-out student.
  9. You come from a broken family.

Although I was teeming with prejudice, I understood, with the help of my background in clinical psychology, that Jeffrey Dahmer was both a victim and suspect. He was a victim of what is so-called ‘naked existence’ as how Victor Frankl put it in his book Man’s Search for Meaning, when  his parents did not cater to him the  atmospheric LOVE he wanted to feel and  be exposed to. The divorce and conjugal misunderstanding between his parents also added to the fuel of his emptiness. In other words, Dahmer grew up in a world that he was ALONE, where no one guided and admonished him for his delinquent behaviors. Therefore, whatever the   bad foundation built at his early age was the trunk of his life later on in that he became a serial killer. So, who should have been responsible for Dahmer’s life? Himself  or his significant others, particularly his parents?

I am not a true-crime votary, but I had interest in Dahmer’s life story when my best friend kept on telling me about him. His name became immortal when I found out that American novelist Joyce Carol Oates wrote Zombie   based on him. Fortunately, I found this biography

All I would say is that this book is perfect. First, the author is a known and trusted journalist who happened to be the first one to be   tipped off when Dahmer’s skeleton in the closet was found. Second, it is full of  clear but blood-curdling accounts of  how and why Dahmer became a serial killer- from the time he showed latent  behavioral patterns to the time when he was killed. Finally, in all fairness, it knocked my socks off; I could not sleep at that night while reading it. I made sure that I heretically locked my door and windows as what I usually did when I was young whenever I watched crime stories.

The only thing that I cringed at is the author’s nettlesome partiality for the policemen who were said to be incompetent in their job because they missed the fact that the man they were supposed to take over to the authority turned out to be Dahmer’s victim. She argued that policemen were not perfect   and had no any idea of what a serial killer’s behavioral patterns are. Also, she reasoned that it was not easy to be in that line of duty since they stay up late to monitor around the city  at nights.

These are the answers to the   psychopath test above. You are normal if your answer is that he memorizes your face. You are a psychopath if you think that he counts what floor you live in.

Rating: 4/ 5 stars ( I  was terrified by  it.)

The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde : A Book Review

dorianA young, naive, shy man at 17 ,with finely-curved scarlet lips, frank blue eyes,crisp gold hair – this is how Dorian is hardly depicted in the novel.I may not be able to completely imagine how strikingly handsome he is, but based on how the painter, Basil Hallward, who appears to be a closet gay, is fond of and devoted to him is,well, I may fall in love with him too.Everyone could be a cradle-robber.(laughs) But despite his oomph, I were bound to stay away from him; he gives me the creeps. He is unpredictable. He reminds me of the psychopath in American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis. Gee! For the life of me!

What makes the novel more interesting is that the characters’ dialogs are replete with polemic ideas. I have almost dogeared the book by highlighting the negative and positive points of Lord Henry particularly his ala Socrates feministic view. Shit on him! If he were such a real persona, I would rebutt him a lot. (laughs)
(But I think Lord Henry may be the smbolic archetype of the narrow-minded society at that time.)

The story for me is typical of a real novel.The beginning tells the emptiness of the protagonist ,its climax and ending narrates the cause and effect of his vainglory. In comparison with the famous writers in this modern century, they have different styles of how to circulate the plots. Besides, the good thing is Oscar Wilde peppered the story with witty words. However, since I am not much cognizant of the ancient literature, I could not relate to the figures and symbols namedropped in illustrating Dorian Gray’s obsession about beauty. I had to adverse myself to looking the archaic words up in a thick dictionary or in the Internet. ( Anyway,this is the essence of reading classics.)So reading the climax was like trudging through the mud, towards the flat , dry land of exciting denouement.

To understand Dorian Gray in the context of psychology, he is spectered by his bad childhood. Orphaned and repulsed by his grandfather, he has low-self esteem. Instilled in by Lord Henry’s philosophy and Basil Halwaark’s portrait of himself, he becomes vain about his looks. He wishes that the painting get along in years,for he loathes to get wrinkles himself . Beauty becomes his moral.For instance, he falls in love with a beautiful actress. He is crazy not only about her physical beauty, but also about her stellar performance on stage. But eventually, he will break up with her as she performs poorly. Vainglorious he is, he will not consider what his heart dictates to him. Rather, he will do as what his moral standard is- aesthetics. Unknowing to the consequences of his evil deeds, the painting turns out to have a soul;it will alter whenever he makes something immortal. It is a matter of Karma. As he wishes, the painting will become hideously ugly. But deep-rooted, he will be indifferent. He will become involved in orgies and other worldly activities. But since life is a matter of choice, Dorian Gray will have a deep realization, he wants to change. In fact, I was moved and I became empathic with him when he says,” I want to escape, go away, and forget.” Oh, poor Dorian Gray. He’s lost. As the banal saying goes,”Old habits die hard.” Whatever he does,whereever he goes, he will still be recidivistic, life has a moral consequence. As the introduction takes claims, ” There is always a price to be paid for uniquitous and self-indulgent behavior. ” It is a lesson we must keep in mind.

While reading this book, an idea bubbled into the chamber of my mind: It is human indeed that one who sets what is good or bad. But for sure, more or less the believers would rant and rave against my insight . As Lord Henry himself puts it,” It is only the intellectually lost who ever argue .” kkk

Before I read it , I was moved by the quotes – which must come from Wilde’s – about the concept of the novel, which I liked a lot.

The artist is the creator of beautiful things .
To reveal art and conceal the artist is art’s aim.
The critic is he who can translate into another manner or a new material his impression of beautiful things.

Oh, nice one. I remembered the Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza.

Rating: 3/ 5 stars