Smaller and Smaller Circles
With years of Robin Cook and Dan Brown behind me, I have recently resolved not to read thriller novels anymore for I find that the action-packed scenes and often frigid characters are not good for a heart that always craves emotional warmth. But I had to make an exception for this one because of all the hype it has been getting, particularly its film adaptation.
Smaller and Smaller Circles, the first Filipino crime novel, won three awards more than a decade ago — the Carlos Palanca Grand Prize for the English Novel in 1999, the National Book Award in 2002, and the Madrigal-Gonzalez award in 2003. With it being a well-decorated book, one may wonder why it had not earned attention before it hit the screen. Being a lover of the unconventional, I became more interested.
As a crime novel, the author did not disappoint. I am no expert in the thriller genre but it seemed to have the elements commonly present in the few crime novels I have read — the main protagonist has a sidekick and protégé, the murders exhibit a pattern, and the killer kills because of a past that haunts him still. The plot, too, is not obvious and had successfully kept me up for longer hours, even through weeknights.
What sets this novel apart from the ones I have read is that the scenes are less frenetic but more lifelike, stirring in the Filipino reader a more unsettling thrill as it exposes our ignorance of our own reality. For instance, all Filipinos know where and what the Payatas dumpsite is but how many of us are truly aware of the living conditions of its inhabitants? Unlike in other crime novels that created suspense in me through delaying the revelation of a harrowing truth, Smaller and Smaller Circles gradually built both fear and guilt in me instead as it made me realize how oblivious I have been to the actual sorry state of those in the lowest rungs of the social ladder. The novel made me realize my own hypocrisy, something that I hate in others, and it left a bitter aftertaste in my mouth, proving that disgust with one’s self is more chilling than the fear of the unknown.
So would I recommend this book? Definitely! If you are a Filipino who seeks to know the shadowed portions of your society whose cries for help are either unheard or ignored, then Smaller and Smaller Circles is a must-read. It will show you how the poorest and weakest of us manage though each day and how the richest and most powerful of us take advantage of their need, only to push them even deeper down. It will show you how corruption rots the system — particularly in the justice system and even the church. But most importantly, it will show you that despite the continuous and rapid spread of rot, there is hope as long as there are people who are not only brave enough but also keen on destroying it.
However, although Smaller and Smaller Circles is a great read, it is not perfect and there is one thing that I do not like about it — I find the characters underdeveloped. If you are the kind of reader who emotionally invests on characters and reads to watch them grow, then this book is not for you. The characters’ individual stories are half-baked and will leave many questions in the reader’s mind.
What is the story behind Father Lucero’s slight limp? It is made clear that his early years were not happy. How is this relevant to the story?
It was suggested that Father Saenz is adopted. How is this relevant to to story?
And Joanna Bonifacio, why did she choose to love in the side? How is this relevant to the story and her role as the ever inquisitive journalist?
Maybe, and I hope, I was just not sharp enough to see how these stories help weave the entire story. But despite my disappointment with the portrayal of the important characters, it is a consolation that the author painted the serial killer not as a demon but a human — a Filipino, most importantly — victimized by crippling poverty. Alex Carlos is not just an antagonist — he is a warning about the future that awaits us if we continue to ignore the rot.