Payatas, a 50-acre dump northeast of Manila’s Quezon City, is home to thousands of people who live off of what they can scavenge there. It is one of the poorest neighborhoods in a city whose law enforcement is already stretched thin, devoid of forensic resources and rife with corruption. So when the eviscerated bodies of preteen boys begin to appear in the dump heaps, there is no one to seek justice on their behalf.
In the rainy summer of 1997, two Jesuit priests take the matter of protecting their flock into their own hands. Father Gus Saenz is a respected forensic anthropologist, one of the few in the Philippines, and has been tapped by the Director of the National Bureau of Investigations as a backup for police efforts. Together with his protégé, Father Jerome Lucero, a psychologist, Saenz dedicates himself to tracking down the monster preying on these impoverished boys.
Smaller and Smaller Circles, widely regarded as the first Filipino crime novel, is a poetic masterpiece of literary noir, a sensitive depiction of a time and place, and a fascinating story about the Catholic Church and its place in its devotees’ lives.
|Publisher:||Soho Press, Incorporated|
|Sold by:||Penguin Random House Publisher Services|
|File size:||868 KB|
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Emil is running after his slum kids, panting in the noonday sun, loosening the high collar of his shirt as he goes.
The children urge him on, their voices shrill with agitation.
“Not much further, Father Emil!”
“Over here, this way!”
“Just a little more!”
His fear grows with each step. It tastes like rust, feels gritty like dirt in his mouth.
The stench from the sea of garbage around them is overpowering. It rained last night, and now that the sun is out, the dump site is steaming. Awful vapors rising lazily with the heat: wet paper and rot and excrement mixing in a soup of odors around them, above them.
You’d think by now you would be used to this, he tells himself, but you’re not. One never gets used to this.
At last they come to a small space about five feet in diameter, where the garbage has been cleared away to expose the older, compost-like layer beneath.
“There.” One of the children points.
Even before he looks in the direction indicated by the thin forefinger, he detects it, a new note of putrescence among all the putrescences mingling in the unwholesome air.
A small, thin, pale hand protrudes from beneath the garbage.
“Mother of God,” he mutters under his breath. He turns to the children. “Quick, get me a long stick.”
Three children immediately come forward, offering him the digging sticks they use to poke through the garbage. He takes one and walks grimly toward their discovery.
He is about to begin when a flash of concern for the children stabs through the grey, slow-moving haze of fear. He stops, turns around and tells them to leave.
“No, Father Emil,” they say, first one voice, then many voices. “We will stay with you,” and in their faces there is a kind of quiet determination and sympathy so grown-up it startles him.
Secretly he is glad of the company. He does not repeat the order and returns, face set, to the business at hand.
All right. Here we go then.
He begins to root through great clumps of garbage, and slowly the thing begins to emerge. He won’t look at it yet—although he already knows what it is—not until he has more or less cleared away the refuse above and around it.
When he is done, the body of a child emerges. It is a boy about eight to ten years old, though it is difficult for Emil to tell the age accurately. Even at fourteen or fifteen, most of these kids are small, very small, owing to malnutrition and disease.
It is lying face down in the muck and completely naked.
The smell of it—now the dominant note in the vile broth of rot smells; it hangs heavy and horrible in the air.
Flies like fat, shiny blue-black beads, buzzing around the body insistently.
Emil cannot see any marks or wounds on the back or on the back of the head. Afraid to touch the corpse, he slides one end of the stick underneath the body, just beneath the chest, and uses it as a lever to turn the body over. The deadweight almost breaks the stick in two.
The sudden silence among the children is odd. In fact, the whole world seems to Emil to have fallen silent. The neighborhood sounds and the sounds of the traffic from the highway have faded to a strange, low rumble in his ears.
The front of the child’s body seems to be moving, and it takes the priest a few seconds to comprehend that there are maggots in it, thousands of them. Gaping wounds—no, holes—in the chest and stomach.
Emil realizes the heart has been removed, the child eviscerated. The genitals are missing.
He looks at the face. Please, God, let the face remind me this used to be a human being. Another few seconds and he realizes the face is gone, as though it has been scraped off, leaving a mess of jellied eyeball and bone protruding here and there through muscle.
Hard to make sense of what is missing, what is left.
Purple-brown scabs on the child’s knees, probably from an afternoon’s rough play.
The spell abruptly broken now, the children running, screaming, from the clearing, leaping goatlike over the garbage in terror.
Emil turns, staggering away from the body, and throws up until his stomach feels completely empty. It does not seem enough; he still feels sick, and he forces his throat to constrict several times, to no avail.
Through the tears that stream from his eyes, he sees that three of the older children have remained. They come toward him now, wordlessly take him by the hand and lead him out quietly, gently, through the garbage.
F.H. Batacan's Smaller and Smaller Circles won several prizes in her native Philippines when it was first published, and with good reason; it is an excellent murder mystery which, while having a superb sense of time and place, rises above its setting to feel fresh almost two decades after it was written. Batacan has created two wonderful characters to investigate the gruesome deaths of several poor boys, Jesuit priests Gus Saenz and Jerome Lucero. Her choice of protagonists brings a richness and depth to her story by incorporating the Catholic Church and its relationships with its priests and congregants as a key element. Making them Jesuits was inspired. That order, known for its emphasis on education and its questioning attitude toward even the Catholic Church itself, keeps Smaller and Smaller Circles from falling into the cozy mystery territory of Ralph McInerney's Father Dowling, while its engagement with the world outside the church renders Batacan's story less cerebral than Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose. Where Batacan truly excels, however, is in her depiction of the relationship between Saenz and Lucero. Their love and respect for each other is apparent in their every encounter, making them a duo I would love to spend more time with (say, at least six more books). Unfortunately, I could not find any other novels authored by Batacan, so Smaller and Smaller Circles will have to remain my gateway drug rather than leading to a full Saenz/Lucero addiction. I received a free copy of Smaller and Smaller Circles through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.