Smaller And Smaller Circles

FICTION

SMALLER AND SMALLER CIRCLES

By F.H. Batacan

Soho Press/Paperback/357 pages/ $20.78/Books Kinokuniya/3/5

This debut novel by Filipino broadcast journalist F.H. Batacan was born of anger.

As she writes in the acknowledgments for the book: "The first time I wrote this book in 1996... I was angry: angry about my job, about the state of my country, about the callousness, complacency and corruption that had dragged it there."

When she reworked the book in 2013 for this version picked up for wider distribution, she says: "I found myself even angrier."

Batacan details, with a keen eye, a torrid state of affairs in her birth country. She paints a conservative and pious Philippines, where the poor live in squalid conditions and secular and clerical officials engage in an obstructive bureaucracy where they are reluctant to do anything that might uncover uncomfortable truths.

The story is set in Payatas in Quezon City, where there is a 200,000 sq m garbage dump (the size of about 28 football fields).

Batacan describes the thousands of scavengers who are there every day to look for scrap material to sell and food to feed their families.

This is where the story opens - with the grisly discovery of the eviscerated body of a boy, his face maimed beyond recognition.

By Batacan's account, the poor are so marginalised and their lives deemed so unimportant that the local police do not devote resources to such cases.

Nor do the super-rich care about their welfare, beyond making regular tithes, sans any follow-up, as to where the money is going or who it is really helping.

So much so that it is left to two ecclesiastical priests to push the boundaries and connect the dots - that this is the sixth similar case to have occurred over six months.

The duo are Father Gus Saenz and Father Jerome Lucero, a teacher and student pair who become unlikely crime-busting allies.

They inspire each other with ideas on how to circumvent roadblocks, such as an attorney-general eager to burnish his image in the media.

Unsurprisingly, Batacan tries to confront the long-standing headlines of alleged paedophilia in Catholic churches. But this is reduced to an almost unnecessary subplot and perhaps there could have been more tangible links between the two story threads.

Batacan also shuns the trite way of telling a mystery novel, that is, the grand reveal near the end of the story. Instead, she favours disclosing the culprit midway and tries to illustrate the psychological trauma experienced by the culprit that forced his/her hand to murder.

But this is where she falls short - what could have been an insightful expose of a twisted mind reads like a one-dimensional glimpse into a person taking out his/her anger on defenceless children.

That said, the crime novel, which is marketed as the Philippines' first story in the genre and has picked up a national writing award, is an intense social commentary in which the reader will, ultimately, feel the injustice of it all.

If you like this, read: A History Of Loneliness by John Boyne (2014, Transworld Publishers, $17.12, Books Kinokuniya). A deeply unsettling novel that confronts head-on the conflagratory and contemporary issue of paedophile priests within the ranks of the Catholic Church as well as the complicity of the church in covering up or ignoring the sexual abuse.

Walter Sim

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on November 01, 2015, with the headline '(No headline) - NOV01E'. Print Edition | Subscribe