In Miguel Syjuco’s first novel, Ilustrado, a Filipino writer named Crispin Salvador describes in a fictional interview with The Paris Review how hard it is to capture Manila on the page:
It’s the most impermeable of cities. How does one convey all that? If one writes about its tropical logic, its familial loyalties, its bitter aftertaste of Spanish colonialism, readers wonder: Is this a Magical Realist? So one writes of the gilded oligarchs and the reporters with open hands and the underpaid officers in military fatigues, the authority of money and press badges and rifles distinguishing them as neither good nor bad, only unsatiated and dangerous. And readers wonder: Is this Africa? How do we fly from someone else’s pigeonhole?
Salvador’s solution was to write across genres: literary fiction, memoir, noir. Ilustrado wove invented excerpts from his work into the quest of the narrator, a Filipino writer also named Miguel Syjuco, to find Salvador’s final, missing manuscript after his mysterious death. The book announced Syjuco as a writer intrigued by the political potential of the novel, who was exploring how the many facets of Philippine life could be re-created in myriad literary forms.
Syjuco’s latest novel, I Was the President’s Mistress!!, offers readers a new variation on similar themes. It’s a more ambitious book than Ilustrado, looking outward rather than inward, and thrumming with outrage at the chaos that passes for politics in the Philippines. What stops the novel from veering into polemic is its tone. Syjuco is funny, even as his writing is underpinned by pathos.
The novel’s plot revolves around Vita Nova, a singer, actress, seductress, and the mistress of the title. The book purports to be her memoir, ghostwritten by Syjuco himself. As it opens, President Fernando V. Estregan, who shares a backstory with one real Philippine president (Joseph Estrada, the actor turned politician who was forced to step down in 2001) and the foul mouth and obsessions of another (Rodrigo Duterte, whose bloody six-year presidency ended this year), is being impeached after Vita leaks damning audio recordings of him and his inner circle. The impeachment turns into a snap election, and Vita decides to run. Her qualifications? “I got more social media followers than [Fernando] got votes last election,” she declares. Scandal, assassination, and murder ensue. The turmoil ratchets up the jockeying and betrayals among the country’s elite. Vita’s advantage is having slept with all of them. She turns being a mistress into a position of power: Watching from the shadows, she’s seen these men for who they really are.
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Most of the action happens off the page—or, more accurately, off the tape, as the book is written as a series of interviews submitted by Syjuco to his editor, who publishes the transcripts verbatim for reasons that become clear later. There are 12 interviews with Vita and 12 with her lovers, beginning with Estregan, the most recent, and ending with her first, her childhood sweetheart Basilio “Loy” Bonifacio. Loy’s unsuccessful attempt to assassinate the president at a rally is the catalyst for Vita to betray Estregan, hire a ghostwriter, and run for office herself, no longer as a sideshow but as the main act. As she announces in the first interview, “If politics is showbiz for ugly people, then in politics my imperial beauty will change the motherlovin’ world…. So keep that recorder pointed my way, coz here we go.”
The serial form of the novel lets Syjuco craft a voice for each character, some more distinctive than others. An Australian DJ boasting of his sexual gymnastics with Vita peppers his speech, unsurprisingly, with “mate” until the interview ends, with Syjuco ejecting him from the car that his ghostwriter alter ego is driving and, thankfully, from the narrative. The Muslim senator Nuredin Bansamoro is the most articulate, recounting a childhood of violence and loss in the second person—a rhetorical trick befitting a politician who follows a seemingly speechwriter-approved script that distances him from the traumas of his own life while making them more relatable to the listener. Bishop Baccante, who sexually assaulted Vita before launching a boycott against her for her sinful ways, receives the most unflattering portrayal. Not only is the transcript punctuated with nauseating sounds (“teeth sucking,” “mouth smacks”), but the bishop twists clichés into terrible puns: “No matter how far one pushes the envelope, it shall always be stationery.”
Each interview serves multiple purposes: advancing the plot, developing a backstory while also adding layers to the other characters by showing how the interviewee (mis)perceives them. The conceit both works and doesn’t. The structure is clever and rewards rereading, yet some chapters feel superfluous. One subplot, involving Vita’s failed romance with a dweeb turned bodybuilder, is unconvincing, even as it shows how romantic disappointment can shade into misogyny and men’s rights activism. Here and elsewhere, political discourse strains the seams of the story.
While Syjuco allows his characters to climb on their soapboxes, he skewers himself as well. Unlike in Ilustrado, he is more a device than a character in I Was the President’s Mistress!!, seen only through how his interviewees react to his questions, rendered as “inaudible” in the transcripts. A portrait emerges of a serious but not humorless young man out of his depth, who wants to say and think the right things, his self-regard blinding him to what he doesn’t know and can’t see coming. (Inquisitive readers can guess from the author’s note how much the two Syjucos are alike.) And even when the narrative drags, Syjuco seems to be making a broader point about the weird labor of reporting: the drudgery of transcription, but also the uneasy dance of an interview that requires reporter and subject to believe in the artifice of their conversation. That tension is true to another paradox of the Philippines: Politicians are often happy to talk, but it doesn’t make it any easier to figure out what they’re saying. (In an essay about the recent Philippine election, Syjuco lamented how invented truths now matter more in domestic politics than fact-checked journalism.)
Vita harbors none of the illusions her ghostwriter struggles with. When Syjuco secretly begins interviewing her ex-lovers, she warns him: “They’ll each try to change your mind, but at some point you’ll need to take a stance and say: this is what I believe is true, and right, and my role in this. Because you know the world can’t stand a free woman. It makes her pay; takes her story, all she earns, because it can.” She may be lying as well, but it’s all for the greater good, she believes. Vita lies sincerely, President Estregan says, which he knows because he does too: “I also tell the truth even when I am lying.”
The pleasures of reading I Was the President’s Mistress!! are double for anyone familiar with Philippine politics. Syjuco recycles some of the most notorious episodes and figures from the country’s recent history for comic or horrifying effect. The president is a facsimile of Rodrigo Duterte defending a drug war that leaves people, their heads bound in packing tape, dead on the streets. (Vita claims she loved Estregan, wielding her naivete as a shield against complicity.) Duterte is only the most obvious parallel, but there are others buried in the text like Easter eggs: The erstwhile human rights lawyer turned Duterte spokesman Harry Roque makes a cameo as Hari Pukeh, and the neck brace worn by former president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, who mysteriously developed a spinal condition that meant she had to stay in the hospital, not jail, for the duration of her corruption trial, becomes a prop for Estregan as impeachment looms.
Not everything fits, though. Shortly before he double-crosses the president, Estregan’s right-hand man declares, “That’s why I dig Vita’s bombshell explosions. Her clandestine recordings remind me of the tapes made by the dictator’s own lovey-dovey, which plunged him into hot water with the wily Iron Buttercunt.” (The dictator being Ferdinand Marcos; the disgruntled spouse, Imelda.) By spinning actual events through his imagination, Syjuco threads his fictional world with facts so that the novel teeters between satire and grim realism. But the tone is sometimes uneven, and the writing can feel strained, with the characters seemingly trying to compete with the real people who inspired them.
I Was the President’s Mistress!! is stuffed with ideas about celebrity, corruption, and the power structures that scaffold political and personal lives. But Syjuco’s writing is more persuasive on a smaller scale. He makes Vita’s eclectic taste in men cohere because he writes well on how a casual glance can be transformed into desire. Discussing how she traded in one lover for another, Vita explains: “I should’ve known—that entitled jerk, from day one, walking right up after the Metallica concert, despite One-Mig beside me the whole time, nodding to the music like someone trying not to disagree. Cat had caught me staring—as he headbanged by the stage, bathed in red light, his hair swirling like blood in water.”
The best parts of I Was the President’s Mistress!! are often about life in Manila and how the city’s unprepossessing exterior exudes its own kind of charm: “The unnamed streets, cinder-block walls, bricks on iron roofs, bare bulbs like blisters, obelisks of rebar, laundry hanged like flags of beggarly kingdoms.” Or darker and blunter, from another character: “Get in that lane, mate. Buses stop here higgledy-piggledy. We’ll be stuck for hours. I once saw one hit a cyclist then back over him. Funerals cost less than hospitals.” As Adam Mars-Jones observed in his review of Ilustrado, Syjuco is a talented writer of place—Crispin Salvador would have been proud.
There are shards of ethnography, too. No character, no matter how self-delusional or how briefly they appear, is reduced to a type, because Syjuco shows how the coordinates of their life—being from the capital or a small town, being a power broker or a pawn in someone else’s war—determine who they are. Vita on her mother: “Single mom, working by day in the air base canteen, by night our community’s seamstress, all the neighbors treating us with such respect (they had to: she knew their measurements).” Or her first love, Loy, describing the uncle who raised him, an illicit community organizer and bet collector for an illegal numbers game. He ends up dead, shot in his home when the mayor’s son takes over and turns on the men who’d helped his father. It’s not a fate that anyone deserves, but especially not a man like his uncle, Loy says: “Not always a good man but always doing one more good thing than bad.”
This chorus of voices gives the novel its texture. Prose that is prolix here turns spiky there. Syjuco shares a fondness for the polyphonic novel with other writers of Filipino heritage. Gina Apostol wove together three stories—each a version of an actual historical event, the Balangiga massacre of 1901—in Insurrecto; her narrative technique was a political choice, a way of writing against the biased archive of the colonial past. And there is Jessica Hagedorn’s Dogeaters, recently reissued on the 30th anniversary of its publication and reviewed by Deborah Eisenberg, who praised its kaleidoscopic structure for revealing a “map of social relations that expresses the inner logic of the president’s regime and the vast, stinging reach of authoritarianism.”
One reason for the similarity may be that Syjuco, Apostol, and Hagedorn write about the Philippines from abroad, with all the advantages and disadvantages that entails. While none are true exiles in the sense of being unable to return, and while their books are stylistically and thematically distinct, the fact that all three have produced polyphonic novels suggests there is something in the experience of displacement that lends itself to this form. Hagedorn, in an interview with The Nation, explained how she began making trips back to the Philippines to develop ideas for Dogeaters. The narrative technique she used can be read as a mirror for her own experience of rediscovering a place she had left through the accounts of multiple others, those she had left behind.
As Edward Said wrote of the fraught responsibilities of exiled writers: “You must leave the modest refuge provided by subjectivity and resort instead to the abstractions of mass politics.” A novel written in the voice not of one but of many is a compromise between those extremes.