F.H. Batacan’s Smaller and Smaller Circles (Soho Press, Inc., 2015) holds the distinction of being the first modern crime novel in the Philippines. Batacan’s work has received substantial recognition (National Book Award, the Palanca Award, and the Madrigal-Gonzales First Book Award). It has also been adapted as a motion picture by Tuko Film Productions and Buchi Boy Entertainment.
While other writers would argue that Smaller and Smaller Circles is more of a mystery novel, this writer argues that because of its extreme focus on both criminal and anti-crime agents’ psychological drives and the environments in which they operate, the novel is primarily crime fiction. From a broader perspective, Smaller and Smaller Circles follows the tradition of works like Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played with Fire, and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest).
Unlike other crime novels where law enforcement agents are usually at the front lines, Batacan reconfigures the world of crime in her novel by putting two priests at the forefront of the battle against a serial killer. The serial killer in question had a penchant for cutting open young boys, eviscerating them and removing their organs and genitals. In addition to the removal of organs, the serial killer also ‘depersonalizes’ the victim through the methodic removal of its face, beginning with a deep incision under the chin.
This writer finds it fascinating in Batacan’s crime discourse because the main characters, Fr. Saenz and Fr. Jerome, never did focus on the fact that they were formally members of the Roman Catholic Church, except when they needed to question and openly criticize it. In many ways, Smaller and Smaller Circles is an open criticism of the various scandals of the most important religious institution in the Philippines.
Through subtle developments in the plot, Batacan allows the reader to enter the world of a religious scandal, where church elders much prefer ‘in-house discipline.’ The moment the church’s protective mechanisms for its priests are set into motion, the role of law enforcement is blurred substantially even if a “man of the cloth” is involved in what any layman can quickly identify as a crime—specifically, sex-related crime.
The novel can be lauded for its sincere desire to recalibrate the discussion on religion and its power on people and even the law because of its broad base of support. While Batacan avoids any overly philosophical discussion of religion, she does clarify that there is a pressing need for increased transparency within religious organizations. The text disagrees with the idea that the religious organization itself should discipline potential sexual offenses.
The fact that this does happen in real life shows that the Roman Catholic Church is not merely an institution, as many are led to believe. Instead, it has become a small, parallel state that invokes its laws and rejects many forms of intrusion—including law enforcement.
The fact that this does happen in real life shows that the Roman Catholic Church is not merely an institution, as many are led to believe. Instead, it has become a small, parallel state that invokes its laws and rejects many forms of intrusion—including law enforcement. If you want an easy comparison, think of the Philippine narco-state with all its guns and gangsters.
In Smaller and Smaller Circles, the constant blurring translates to the impunity of the worst kind. In this kind, church elders openly disdain the idea of transparency in the name of organizational stability.
Science, crime & power
At one point, venerable Director Lastimosa of the National Bureau of Investigation requested the main protagonist Fr. Saenz to help examine a string of gruesome deaths that have stopped the agency dead in its tracks.
…Smaller and Smaller Circles reiterates that mere structure is not enough.
There has to be compassion and a genuine hunger for justice.
Father Gus Saenz is described as a “forensic anthropologist,” trained in France for his Ph. D. He runs his show as an independent agent in SSC’s world. Batacan brings Fr. Saenz head to head with church elders and law enforcement agents. He is an amalgam of several archetypes and mythic figures in literature—including Sherlock Holmes and Freud’s All-Father (ironically, everyone in the novel calls him ‘father.’) He is a mild, cool-headed man who is eventually drawn to the core of a serial killer’s world.
Together with his closest ally, Fr. Jerome, Fr. Saenz unleashes old fashioned logic and the love of science on a law enforcement landscape that is deeply marred by nepotism, political appointments, and entrenched prejudices of ambitious state agents who have forgotten their codes of honor. Saenz’s foil, Ben Arcinas, is a caricature of a high-level officer who always looks out for number one (himself). Arcinas is further depicted as a soulless bureaucrat who prioritizes social mobility over the compassionate delivery of justice.
Batacan makes it clear that men of science are superior to people who can exercise power simply because the state allowed them to do so. This is another open critique in the novel, this time of the Philippine government and its “semi-open” system of appointing agents and administrators at whim.
While organizations like the NBI certainly have formal structures in place, Smaller and Smaller Circles reiterates that mere structure is not enough. There has to be compassion and a genuine hunger for justice—especially for those who are unable to fast-track their way into [in]justice by using various forms of capital to attain favorable legal outcomes and preferential treatment while working with law enforcement agencies.
In the absence of genuine commitment to justice, the line that separates criminals and state agents is distorted significantly. Batacan creates jarring dissonance in the reader by showing how even the most powerless of state agents (a driver in the NBI) can exhibit the same predatory behaviors in the name of clinging to some semblance of stability in a broken organization.
While Smaller and Smaller Circles is certainly a ‘slow burn’ kind of novel because of its moderate pace that continues to the end of the book, it remains a positive contribution to Philippine literature in English because of its attempts to understand why institutions tend to rot and fail despite their age and continued funding (either from willing spiritual followers or a government that has no real alternatives). As a final note from this writer, however, Batacan’s defensive position that favors science is curiously not extended to freedom of expression, as the text quotes “too much freedom of the press,” at one point. Ironic in a bad way, as the novel form itself is the dialogic epitome of freedom in literary expression.