AUGUST 18, 2015
WHEN F.H. BATACAN’S Smaller and Smaller Circles was first published in the Philippines in 1999, it was heralded as inaugurating a new genre in Filipino literature — one that, sixteen years later, appears to be as large in Manila as it is in the United States. Batacan had allegedly written the first “Western-style” crime novel in the Philippines. The belatedness of the country’s entrée into the genre was diagnosed in the book itself. Early in the novel, the protagonist detective receives an admonition from police generals: “You’ve been watching too many foreign movies, Father Saenz; there are no serial killers in the Philippines.” This sentence was longer in the original 1999 Philippine version than in the 2015 US version and ends: “and if there were, they would be white males in their thirties.” Serial killers, according to popular belief, could not exist in the Philippines. (There are a number of articles online, as recent as 2013, with titles like “8 Reasons Why There are no Serial Killers in the Philippines,” that argue these points in exhaustive detail.) In a culture with too many gossips and too much family time, how could anyone find the time to meticulously kill multiple people without being caught?
Serial killers, though, don’t make themselves. Serial killings without a robust investigative agency — or a dedicated rogue detective — are just individual crimes. The Philippine National Bureau of Investigation’s notorious inefficiency and the chronic underfunding of police forces around the country mean that there are no resources to link any one individual crime to another. Due to the mere fact of bookkeeping, the Philippines have murderers, but rarely multiple offenders. Batacan herself worked in the intelligence community in Manila and has suggested in interviews that her frustration with bureaucracy eventually produced the 1999 novel. Father Gus Saenz, the rogue detective at the center of the novel’s investigation, is stifled by police corruption, intelligence bureaucracy, and a perpetual lack of resources.
It’s difficult to disentangle these elements from the standard legacy of Raymond Chandler — working around or against the system — but Filipino critics have praised the novel’s uniquely Filipino sensibility. Where Chandler’s Los Angeles was an endless stretch of amorality, Smaller and Smaller Circles takes place in an urban society saturated in Catholicism. Saenz is a Catholic priest whose side project is an ongoing investigation into child abuse in the Catholic Church. Unsurprisingly, a Catholic infrastructure similar to the National Bureau of Investigation exists to shunt, silence, and dismiss Saenz’s investigations. Saenz’s double-duty intersects: by day, he investigates a serial killer of small teenage boys; by night, he continues to press at an abusive priest in power. Fighting the state and the church at once means Saenz and his obedient protégé Jerome Lucero are, for the most part, on their own.
Smaller and Smaller Circles takes place in Payatas, a massive landfill northeast of Quezon City, which lies northeast in the sprawling Metro Manila. Today, like in 1999, the landfill is home to a significant number of people whose livelihoods depend on sorting the city’s refuse into increasingly unusable bits. In 2000, a landslide of trash killed up to 1,000 people. Payatas is part of the “Planet of Slums” geographer Mike Davis traced in 2007, and it is firmly within a geography of landfills that dot South and East Asia. These landfills process not only the waste of the cities they border on, but they also serve as the location of outsourced waste management from the United States and other countries wealthy enough to export their trash. Life in and around these dumpsites is Hobbesian — poor, nasty, brutish, and short — but actually sanctioned by a global social contract that has guaranteed protection against such conditions by pushing them onto a population that has been almost entirely ignored. The victims in Smaller and Smaller Circles are malnourished preteen boys from Payatas; their individual deaths, let alone serial deaths, would have likely gone unnoticed by police were it not for Saenz and Lucero, who apply scientific police procedure and theological Catholic compassion in equal measure in their hunt for the killer.
The Church and the police make a great pair, Michel Foucault reminds us, and they make a particularly great pair for the sake of the crime novel. The success of Smaller and Smaller Circles is its adept negotiation of Catholicism and institutional forensics, which intersect in the Philippines in actual ways, rather than the theoretical ways they do in the United States. But the Catholic Church and the police share more than crippling bureaucracy and corruption. They are also the shared inventors and tinkerers of a long-lived genre that Batacan cashes in on: the confession. The literary genre of confession emerges at the intersection of police interrogation and Catholic purging of guilt, and holds dear its investments in truth-telling and the transparency of the subject.
Thus in an exciting twist, Batacan opens the novel on the confession of the serial killer. True to the crime genre, the killer remains unidentified until much later, and yet these revelations are scattered throughout the otherwise procedural plot. (In a somewhat ham-handed decision, the Soho Crime edition layout features these confessions in circles that grow smaller as the detectives grow closer.) It is one thing to know at the beginning that there is a serial killer lurking in the pages of crime novels; it is another to have him confess before we know his crimes.
The killer comes from similar dumpsite conditions as his victims. Saenz and Lucero, whose lives are hardly luxurious but relatively comfortable, express only sympathy with him — perhaps a theological twist on the Chandler-esque empathetic relationship that Marlowe and his criminals share. Saenz and Lucero save their true disgust and disdain for Manila’s faux-philanthropic elite and self-serving bureaucrats, who thwart their efforts to find the serial killer. In a fairly exhausted plot device — but one that would have likely aligned well with scandals in the Catholic Church in the late 1990s — the serial killer’s motives are rooted in the psychological damage caused by a pedophilic male school teacher. This is offered as the explanation for why the killer carefully removes boys’ genitals after killing them. It strikes me as a somewhat cheap if not vaguely homophobic explanation, but it causes Lucero to have a nightmare of his own boyhood; when Saenz finally catches the killer, his first response is to forgive him.
One of the most common justifications for the belief that there are no serial killers in the Philippines is that family life dominates the social world, which splits into two related explanations: first, that no one could find enough time to come up with a repeatable, meticulous way of killing a person; second, that no one in tight-knit families could develop the sociopathy conducive for cold-hearted murder. (The famous Filipino serial killer who murdered Gianni Versace in 1997, Andrew Cunanan, was — according to common argument — a result of his being born in California instead of Manila.)
Without completely collapsing into cultural essentialism, there’s something compelling about this line of thought. There are surely serial killers in the Philippines. But the social connections in Filipino life make detectives’ work look a lot different. Naomi Hirahara, the Los Angeles-based crime novelist, has made a similar argument as a critique of Raymond Chandler. How does Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, she wonders, not bear “the weight of family or community”? In ways similar to Hirahara’s protagonists, Batacan’s Saenz and Lucero are simultaneously rebels against the system and also fully enmeshed in their family and community. Even the serial killer has a family whom he calls semi-regularly. Batacan offers us the hard-boiled detective and the loner murderer, but without the cynical isolation of Chandler.
Despite early critics’ celebration of the book as the “first Filipino crime novel,” there is something inextricably American about the type of crime novel Smaller and Smaller Circles is, too. “Hybridity” is an easy term to apply here: it is both LA-noir-but-not-quite and Filipino-but-not-quite. Although Americans have been slow to fully account for the implications of the charge, the Philippines is certainly a postcolonial nation from the still very extant American Empire, and it remains the center of American imperial desires in the Pacific Ocean. Smaller and Smaller Circles emerges from the particularly American genre of crime and noir because the Philippines emerged from the particularly American style of imperial control.
One of the reasons that the “first Filipino crime novel” emerged as late as 1999 — making it seem like a fairly belated response to its American counterpart — is that the American dominance of the Filipino literary market meant that most Filipino publishing houses focused on textbooks and instructional manuals. This left very little room for either Filipino prestige or pulp genres to flourish and likely quashed literary output on the islands for most of the 20th century. This was one of the issues Jessica Hagedorn challenged in the early 1990s with Charlie Chan is Dead, a book that remains one of the most important collections in Asian American and American Pacific Empire writing. If Smaller and Smaller Circles is “Filipino” in some essential way, it is because it marks the Philippines on the traditionally exclusionary map of the world republic of letters, even if it does so by way of an American pulp genre.
The first edition, published by the University of the Philippines Press, won the Philippine National Book Award, the Carlos Palanca Memorial Awards, and the Madrigal-Gonzalez Best First Book Award. These are surprising awards for a novel in a genre not generally affiliated with prestige — indeed, one that more often than not shirks the confines of literary prestige. There was clearly popular and critical demand for an American-style Filipino crime novel. For her American debut, with Soho Press, Batacan expanded the novel from 155 pages to 355, an extension that helps draw out the tension of the hunt and slow down the increasingly smaller circles that Saenz and Lucero trace around their suspect. The 2015 edition retains the taut pacing of the 1999 edition, but expands the social world of the novel to give the reader a sense of the wide range of Manila denizens, from aggressive investigative journalists to cocktail party elites, from dedicated secretaries to well-meaning health workers in Payatas.
One of the more curious justifications given to prove the Philippines has no serial killers is that there is too much sunlight: not only is everything transparent, but everyone is too busy enjoying the weather. In contrast, everything in Smaller and Smaller Circles feels claustrophobic, opaque, and dark. Saenz and Lucero, in response, attempt to shine light on corruption and crime. Batacan, similarly, has turned our attention to the shady underbelly of Metro Manila, where the sun only helps increase the stench of trash.