Updated 18:57 PM PHT Mon, June 13, 2016
Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — A group of young children lead a priest along a garbage disposal site, to a small, pale, unmoving hand sticking out of a pile of trash. What he finds is a mangled corpse, mutilated beyond recognition. This is the scene with which F.H. Batacan’s “Smaller and Smaller Circles” — about two priests in search of a serial killer in Manila — opens, a chilling prologue to what unfolds to be a masterful, if controversial, work of crime fiction, widely considered to be Philippine literature’s first in the said genre.
First released as a novella by the University of the Philippines Press in 2002, “Smaller and Smaller Circles” was re-released in an extended version by Soho Press in 2015, following its discovery by Juliet Grames, the associate publisher of the New York-based publishing house, at the Manila International Literary Festival in 2012. Grames approached Batacan about adding more depth to the story, which the writer was more than happy to do.
At a recent signing for her novel — which won a Carlos Palanca Memorial Award for best English-language novel in 1999, the Madrigal-Gonzalez Best First Book Award in 2002, and the Manila Critics’ Circle National Book Award for Fiction in 2003 — the soft-spoken Ms. Batacan graciously sat down with CNN Philippines Life to discuss the state of crime fiction in the Philippines, returning to her work after all these years, and her involvement in the upcoming film adaptation. Below are edited excerpts from the interview.
What drove you to write the novel?
I started writing the novel in 1996, in its original shorter form. I was working at the time in a government intelligence agency. The first four years of my work there were really good — I mean, we had a great former agency head, but after that, after he left, things went downhill, and I was very disillusioned. Very frustrated, very angry. And one night, out of frustration that I couldn’t sleep, I didn’t know what else to do. I started writing, just as an outlet, and the very first thing that came out of that evening insomnia was the first chapter, where they find the body. And that hasn’t changed since that night.
What factored into your decision to make the book critical of the Catholic Church, but then feature two priests as protagonists?
The Jesuits have a very long string of scientific exploration. Scientific research is very Jesuit. Astronomers, geneticists… So I felt that it wouldn’t be very surprising to have a Jesuit protagonist who’s both a man of faith as well as a man of science. I wanted the two priests to be the sort of people who, aside from having their faith in God, they also put their own worldly talents to the service of God and man.
It’s critical of the Catholic Church, I think, because… I’m a Catholic, and I’m what used to be called “Katoliko sarado.” I will never be anything else. But just as I think, you know, in politics, you may support a candidate, but you cannot be uncritical of that candidate. I think you can also be critical of your faith and critical of the institution. So I don’t believe in blind faith. I don’t believe in blind adulation. I think faith is enriched by being questioned.
You know, sometimes I see things like, “Oh, we can’t have serial killers in the Philippines because we’re too neighborly…” Which is sort of a nice way of saying chismoso. We’re always in each other’s business. But there are so many ways of evading that, and so many ways of flying under the radar.
Did you have to do a lot of research when you were writing?
I did. When I first started writing the short version in 2002, there wasn’t much available on the Internet in terms of resources, but now there is. When I started re-writing, revising, and expanding it in 2013, of course there was a lot more available online, a lot more resources available in terms of books. But I think the most important thing is to be faithful to your milieu. You can google as much about forensic techniques, and all that, but is it going to fly in the Philippines? A lot of the forensic stuff and all the other techniques in the book were very, very low-tech, and very, very apt for 1997 in Manila. And the fact is, in the over 10 years since the book first came out, not much has changed in terms of that. There may be some improvements in the way we process evidence, but it hasn’t been across the board. I doubt that the technology we have in Manila would be the same somewhere in the South.
What do you think humans find so interesting about crime fiction?
There’s this one crime fiction writer who said that, “Death is the last great mystery.” And it’s true. I mean, people die for all sorts of reasons, but getting there is always — it’s something the people are curious about. You either die from old age, from disease, or something like that, but the rest is where, you know, the darkness of the human soul comes through. We kill for passion, we kill for greed, we kill for so many motivations that are uniquely human. Animals kill for survival, but humans are unique in that they kill out of malice, or out of passion.
And another crime writer, he said something like, “We want to believe in a just world.” And how can you not, you know? I think for many fans of crime fiction, you want a world that makes sense somehow, where you can attain some sort of justice, some sort of closure. Or some kind of understanding, even, that you don’t usually get in real life, particularly in the Philippines. It’s so hard to find justice, so hard to find closure.
In the book, a character notes that there are no serial killers in the Philippines. Are you of the same belief?
No. As one of the main characters, Saenz, says in one part of the book, there are serial killers in Japan, in Pakistan, in Indonesia, and what makes us think that we are so blessed by God that we’re exempt from this phenomenon? You know, sometimes I see things like, “Oh, we can’t have serial killers in the Philippines because we’re too neighborly…” Which is sort of a nice way of saying chismoso. We’re always in each other’s business. But there are so many ways of evading that, and so many ways of flying under the radar.
There’s this one crime fiction writer who said that, “Death is the last great mystery.” And it’s true. People die for all sorts of reasons, but getting there is always — it’s something the people are curious about.
What was it like returning to your work after all those years when you began the extended novel?
It was difficult at first, because, for one, you see all those spots that need improvement, like, “No, I don’t want to look at it! Don’t make me!” But I think what was more difficult was the fact that there was a need for more complexity in the plot. So we introduced a subplot, and more depth to the characters. And I think it was also important at some stage to kind of mind the cultural markers — you know, there are some things that a Filipino reader can instantly recognize. Pan de sal, or, you know, something like that. And it’s not just the terminology, it’s also like, “Why is this investigation not moving fast enough?” Like the Maguindanao massacre, having taken place, what, five years ago or more? And hardly anything has happened. Again, you have to come to grips with the reality of how things work here. In my “Manila Noir” story, I’ve written about investigations in Manila being like swimming in cold porridge. You do get the sense of that very much.
The novel is in the process of being turned into a film. How involved are you in the making of this adaptation?
Every once in a while, they ask me, they consult with me about some things. Largely, I’d like them to run with it, because I would love to see their vision for it, and so far it seems really great. There are amazing people behind the project, and although I can’t talk very much about it, I think it’s something to be excited about.
In politics, you may support a candidate, but you cannot be uncritical of that candidate. I think you can also be critical of your faith and critical of the institution. So I don’t believe in blind faith. I think faith is enriched by being questioned.
“Smaller and Smaller Circles” is widely considered to have pioneered the Philippine crime fiction novel. What do you think is the state of crime fiction today in the country?
I’m hopeful that there are more people, more writers, who are becoming interested. Right now, there’s a group of 16 young up-and-coming crime fiction writers who are having a launch just this month, on the 25th. I met with some of them a few days ago, and they’re very enthusiastic. They have aspirations for writing the genre, and, you know, I’m always telling them, again: “Write faithfully about the country. Don’t write a ‘C.S.I.’ version of the Philippines, because we don’t have that. We don’t have those kinds of high-tech techniques, or devices, or technology. And be faithful to the situation of the law enforcement in the country.”
In the Philippines, we’re such a culturally diverse country. A couple of years back, we had a mini-anthology of crime fiction that I co-edited with Kenneth Yu of Philippine Genre Stories. One of the stories was this story of sexual abuse and murder in the Chinese community. I think there’s no one way to be Filipino, there’s no one way to have a cultural reflection of what it means to be a Filipino in a crime fiction novel. It really is in the way the writer handles the material. And I would love to see a wonderful crime story set in Mindanao — there’s so much potential.
I’m very hopeful. I think there will be more as the months and years go on, and crime fiction is a great, great vehicle for talking about the realities of the society that you live in. Crime fiction is all these — it’s not just genre, it’s capable of producing great literature.