Smaller and Smaller Circles
I first read Smaller and Smaller Circles because it was required material in my literature class. Literature class. Hah. You get grades for doing what you would like very much to do: read.
As the first true crime fiction novel in the Philippines (Nick Joaquin’s Cave and Shadows is not so much a crime story as a Quest for Identity novel), Smaller and Smaller Circles cannot help but be compared to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes novels and stories, from which the book obviously draws inspiration. (I was lucky to read this book just after watching the Guy Rithchie film and reading the original Holmes stories.) Smaller and Smaller Circles’s Holmes and Watson, Fathers Gus Saenz and Jerome Lucero, respectively, are irregulars in a crime scene where the official authority (Scotland Yard and the NBI) fails to step up. And yet the novel also departs from the Holomesian fiction: instead of the clear and singular perspective of John Watson, the point of view rotates along a rigodon of characters: Fathers Gus and Jerome, Father Emil of Payatas, the journalist Joanna Bonifacio, the unscrupulous Ben Arcinas, the victims, and even the murderer.
Glossing aside criticisms regarding the ridiculous transparency of the case and the hint of technical pretentiousness in the novel, one must still accede that Smaller and Smaller Circles is a fresh and smart read as well as an incredibly relevant book for the study of Philippine society. The circulating perspectives throughout the story hints at the difference between Victorian London and its Jack the Ripper and contemporary Manila and Payatas with its psychotic face-stealer. Instead of Holmes and Watson shedding a pure light straight into the heart of chaos, the differing voices and the plot’s roundabout resolution and conclusion suggest the plight of a confused community, much more confused than a London drowning under the clutches of Moriarty. For evil in the Philippines does not come forth so simply and clearly from a singular and well-oiled agency, but from every corner, from every strata of society: the inefficient NBI, the corruption which allowed for Saenz money, the sensationalist media, the depraved criminals, and the starving and desperate poor. Everyone is a victim because everyone is a perpetrator.
In the exam question in Sir Max Pulan’s class, it was noted that detective fiction is a reflection of a troubled society’s search for order. Victorian London needed Holmes to be because Scotland Yard could not quell the tide of crime. How troubling is it that Payatas needs two Jesuits because the police cannot do their duty? How troubling is it that the murderer is also a victim, the hero a part of the system of bribery, the supporting cast of an insensitive mass media? In the end, Smaller and Smaller Circles provokes more than it clarifies. And if the case is rather transparent and the plot rather pretentious, maybe this is because these things are not the point. In this country, we all know who are the sinners, we all know who is guilty, and we all know that we, and the personalities we have shaped, are to blame for our plight. What we must consider is why we are going through things in a roundabout way.