Saturday, March 11, 2017

No small miracle

I WISH there were more Jesuits like Father Gus Saenz.

First, he has a bookshelf I wouldn’t mind spending endless detention hours with: Asterix comics, glossy art books, and “DNA in the Courtroom” (although to be honest, I prefer “CSI” reruns: more Hollywood than science).

He has democratic, even “reprobate” taste in music: Gregorian chants and rock music, which he plays very loud while cutting up bodies.

When fellow priest and protégé Jeremy Lucero complains about R. E. M. blasting into their ears during an autopsy, Father Gus defends the rock band whose greatest hit is “Losing My Religion”: “Don’t knock it. It’s the closest either of us will ever get to sex.”

F. H. Batacan’s creation of a character with a complex inner and outer life is a good enough reason to rush to the nearest bookstore for “Smaller and Smaller Circles” before the copies disappear altogether.

The plain truth is that in this country, books written by Filipinos rarely share the gilded reprinting destinies of foreign bestsellers like the Harry Potter series and “Fifty Shades of Grey”.

According to Cristina Pantoja-Hidalgo in her University of the Philippines (UP) Press book, “Over a Cup of Ginger Tea: Conversations on the Literary Narratives of Filipino Women,” the first printing of English-language books written by Filipinos usually runs only to 1,000 copies.

It’s no small miracle that “Smaller and Smaller Circles” was reprinted four times since it was first published as a novella by the UP Press in 2002. The slim book became an underground favorite. Total number of copies reprinted by 2006: 6,000.

By then, the novella gathered the critics’ nods: the Grand Prize for the Novel in English at the Carlos Palanca Memorial Awards for Literature in 1999; the Philippine National Book Award from the Manila Critics’ Circle in 2002; and the Madrigal Gonzalez Best First Book Award in 2003.

 The copy I recently bought from a local bookstore is from the 2015 printing by independent New York publisher Soho Crime of “Smaller and Smaller Circles,” the novel.

For three years, its author rewrote and expanded the novella from the original 155 pages into the novel’s 357 pages.

The author is Maria Felisa H. Batacan, who worked for 10 years with the Philippine intelligence community, before going into broadcast journalism and crime and mystery fiction writing. She was a fellow at the 1996 Silliman University National Writers Workshop.

Marketing a book through its cover, blurbs neatly summarize the F. H. Batacan behind “Smaller and Smaller Circles”. But blurbs cannot justly capture what makes this novel about a serial killer in 1997 resound to this day. (To be continued)

( 09173226131)

* First published in SunStar Cebu’s March 12, 2017 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

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