I’ve been asked several times over the years about sparked the writing of Smaller and Smaller Circles , its related short stories, as well as the other planned novels in the series. Half a lifetime ago, fresh out of university, I was hired to work in a government agency that had come to be known as one of the most corrupt in the country. But I came on board at an auspicious time, and was lucky enough to spend the first four years of my working life under a committed reformist who tried to change the internal workings of that agency for the better.
However, when the political winds changed and he moved on to bigger challenges, I found myself in an environment that reverted, pretty much overnight, to its original state – an environment rife with corruption, intellectually stagnant and morally compromised. It was as though those four years of reform had never happened.
In the nearly six years I would continue to spend there – hoping against hope that things would change — one of the things my department tried to do was to create a database for the kind of crimes we dealt with on a daily basis. They weren’t crimes against persons; but since we were starting from scratch, we felt that similar data gathering and analysis techniques employed for crimes against persons in some Western countries, particularly the UK, could provide an initial platform from which to launch our efforts.
Our aim was simple: to put together all the information we could gather based on actual cases past and current so we could, with a reasonable degree of accuracy, predict when certain types of crimes would occur, who was likely to be behind them and what the stakes were likely to be. In other words, the aim was to establish patterns of criminal behavior, with the intention of improving the efficiency of enforcement and resource allocation.
I worked at the level of research and policy – all relatively bloodless and boring, one might think. But in the Philippines, it is often at the level of policy where one can see the true face of corruption. The resistance we came up against was enormous. People tried to scupper the project, in small ways and big, to our faces and behind our backs.
Our ultimate enemy was fear. Officials feared losing illicit income. Employees feared change; feared having to try harder, reach farther, learn something new. Everyone feared losing control, particularly to a small group that was pushing all this change. Nobody seemed interested in how, in the long run, the change was going to make their jobs safer, easier, more productive, less vulnerable to the slings and arrows of outrageous political fortune. Certainly, very few people were interested in how the changes would make a difference in the quality of service to the public.
This was nearly twenty years ago, and I’ve struggled since then to understand and to come to terms with the disillusionment and disappointment we faced. Part of that continuing struggle was to write Circles, which perhaps in a roundabout way contains some of the elements of that battle fought and lost.
My interest in writing fiction is the complicity of elements of Philippine society in the crimes that happen around us every day: the complicity of law enforcement and media and politicians certainly, but also the complicity of ordinary citizens in their refusal to demand better of their public servants and their general indifference as to whether or not justice is served. The latter element is changing,
in part because social media ha s given people more of a voice; but the first will take many more years to change, and it’s unlikely to happen in my lifetime.
To my mind, crime fiction can be a vehicle for writers to articulate the truth of their lives and societies. Not just to tell it like it is, but also, to hint at what it should be – something that a good friend, also a writer, once described to me as an "impossible space": a space that is promised, a yet-to-be that cannot be … represented; a space that is only gestured towards.
The writer, the musician, the artist, the painter — all gesture toward that impossible space that remains elusive even as they attempt to define it. And yet we must continue to pursue that space; we have no choice.
I suppose this, ultimately, is what I am trying to do in my work. I am pursuing my own impossible space.
Smaller and Smaller Circles by FH Batacan is published by SohoPress