AT A Facebook book club for Philippine readers, one member asked everyone else to “name a book or books that you have tried reading and forced yourself to finish but couldn’t.” Others chimed in with answers such as Jane Austen’s Emma, Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, and more recent and familiar works like Twilight, The Hunger Games, and Fifty Shades of Grey.
Mine was Filipina author F.H. Batacan’s crime novel Smaller and Smaller Circles, in which two Jesuit priests who happen to be capable of forensic work get called in by the authorities to help investigate a string of murders happening at the infamous Payatas dumpsite. It won the Carlos Palanca Grand Prize for the English Novel in 1999, but was first published in 2002 in novella form by the University of the Philippines Press, and adapted into a feature-length film in 2017.
For those of you attempting to get into reading in general and Philippine literature in particular: I’ll be frank with you and tell you that it is not an easy read, and it’s not just because the novel’s subject matter is gruesome and politically incorrect. The novel’s problem is that it could have been structured better and that it tends to be wanting when it comes to style and ease of reading.
In other words, it is a slog to read.
That said, the novel’s shortcomings are not what I want to discuss here. Rather, it is the reaction of one other member, who to be fair is friendly and shares a lot of my preferences as far as books are concerned. The mere mention of my not liking Batacan’s book very much, however, was enough to upset him, evidenced by the fact that he accused me of somehow having a problem with the whole thing because of my beliefs, and implying that I have poor taste for not holding a Palanca-winning work in very high esteem.
First, while I am a Catholic (which I did not bring up in the Facebook discussion because it wasn’t relevant to it at all), the fact that the novel touches on priestly abuses and the freethinking Jesuit approach to things doesn’t disturb me at all. The sexual abuse of young boys by gay priests is a well-established fact.
Also, having attended some Jesuit institutions in my time, I like the fact that the priests of the Society of Jesus, regarded by many as “the Jedi Order of the Catholic Church,” get to be the heroes of the story once more after having the spotlight shone on them in William Peter Blatty’s 1971 opus The Exorcist.
Which, by the way, is more remembered for its film adaptation. I think that’s a little sad.
Second, just because a work won a prestigious award doesn’t mean that it will be universally liked, or that it will be widely regarded as culturally impactful. This does not apply to just Palanca-winning works, but also to those that have won even bigger accolades such as the Academy Award or the Nobel Prize.
However, I reassured him and everyone else that those were just my initial impressions, and that hopefully the book will get better as the story progresses. And while his less-than-friendly assumptions gave me even more motivation to finish and reflect on a book that is of indisputable import according to the literati of our country – even though it really could have been written better – jumping to conclusions is not something we should be doing a lot. We risk alienating others that way, even though we don’t really mean to.
That said, perhaps it’s not too late to make one more New Year’s resolution for 2020. Namely: “don’t make too many assumptions.”