12 July 2014

Smaller and Smaller Circles

Smaller and Smaller Circles by F. H. Batacan (The University of the Philippines Press, 2002)

Perhaps I should preface this post with a trigger warning. The quote below describes in graphic detail the method to a cold-blooded crime.

"We know from the clean incision at the neck that he would slit the skin under the chin first, from ear to ear. I think he needed help to peel the skin back from the chin, so he would hook this under the skin and flesh, using it much like you would use a chisel, and start to pull the skin upward. But it couldn't have been easy. For something so thin, these things are pretty tough, made from surgical steel or chromium; the skin and flesh would tear in place. So he'd hook in again and again, and in the process of pulling the skin over the chin bone, he would leave these marks."

Perhaps the novel itself should come with a bit of a warning. Nothing could have prepared the reader for—pardon the comparison—a prose that cuts and slices cleanly. The violence in this detective novel was unflinching.

A series of killings was being committed in Payatas, in a garbage dump site in Metro Manila. All victims shared the same profile: all adolescent boys, all poor, and all with slight body frames. They were found dumped on a mountain of garbage, with facial skin peeled off and with vital organs missing.

The National Bureau of Investigation enlisted the help of Father Augusto Saenz, a Jesuit priest and renowned forensic anthropologist. He was easily becoming the go-to person in solving high profile cases in the city. Saenz was assisted in this case by Father Jerome Lucero, another priest, a clinical psychologist and his former student. During the course of their investigation, an unflattering portrait of urban poverty and ineptitude of law enforcers was drawn. The characters meanwhile were shown as full, rounded human beings worthy of our sympathy—the detective priests hard at work, the victims' relatives, and most disconcertingly, the killer himself.

F. H. Batacan's debut novel won the two prestigious literary awards in the country—the Palanca Grand Prize for the Novel and the Philippine National Book Award. It was a surprise hit, too. It had several print runs and must now be considered a cult novel.

Part of its appeal, I think, is its quick and efficient sketches of characters and situations. It effectively dramatized the professional work of the two detectives priests and rather menacingly tapped into the psyche of the serial killer. Hunter and then hunted, the killer was as creepy as the ubiquitous rats, large and numerous, running around the garbage heap. He was as much offender as offended quarry.

I can feel them. Scurrying in circles around me, smaller and smaller circles like rats around a crust of bread or piece of cheese. Waiting, waiting, waiting for the right moment. The moment when I slip up, when I make a mistake, when I get careless.

I can hear their feet. Some of them pass by the gate on the sidewalks; they think I can't see them. Some of them are brave enough to rattle the gate; they bring my mail, my bills, they ask for donations. Some of them get into the house while I'm sleeping, and I wake up and I hear their feet on the stairs, yes I do.

As the world of the killer gradually narrows down and collapses into a point, detectives Saenz and Lucero, and the reader with them, began to sense that the crime scene of a garbage dump was the very emblem of social and economic ills that drove human beings to despair and destruction. The quiet moments of anguish and reflection in the novel proved to be as devastating and desperate as the violent acts they seek to redress.

This turned out to be an old-fashioned detective story, using the conventional effects of the genre to create suspense. Despite the artifice, the paradox of deriving pleasure and excitement from reading crime novels was obvious.

Satisfied, Saenz steps carefully towards the body. He feels more than a bit ashamed of the way sorrow and horror and revulsion are warring with the excitement mounting within him; the shame feels like sand in his mouth, rough and gritty, and he wishes he could spit it out.

Saenz himself could not properly acknowledge the giddy feeling he felt as he found a critical evidence near one victim. This was the evidence that could help solve or explain the crimes. The gratuitousness of it all was at least fully acknowledged.

Two-thirds into the novel, the identity of the killer was already revealed. The remaining one-third was spent on the search for the root of evil, its motivation, its internal workings. In the end, the case was solved rather too neatly. The novel's strength lay not in the plot, but in the characterization and in the writing. The sentences were arresting and clinical in their precision and passionate intensity.

Blunt to the point of occasional abrasiveness, he has few friends.

A thin blade of fear, cold like surgical steel in the brain, slices through the priest's consciousness.

The hatred on his face [is] so intense and terrible that she feels it almost as a kind of heat on her own.

Fr. Saenz will later return in a short story by Batacan in Manila Noir. Hopefully his wits and expertise will be put to use in another novel of great human interest. I am almost ashamed to wish so.

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