One of the phrases in a reviewer’s regular toolkit is “You’re unlikely to read another book quite like this one”, either this year or in some number of years to come. But in the case of Man Asian Literary Prize-winner Miguel Syjuco’s long-awaited second novel and stinging political satire, I Was the President Mistress!!, one can deploy the phrase with considerable confidence that it is in fact true.
Structured (or maybe constructed) as a series of chapter-length interview transcripts with Filipino starlet, celebrity and social climber Vita Nova, interlaced with those of the other parties in her various liaisons (dangereuses and otherwise), which include (but aren’t restricted to) the great (if not the good) of Philippines politics and society (including the erstwhile President). Syjuco’s prose is for the most part in a manic race with itself, dropping bon mots and obscenities in equal measure, Taglish along with French and Latin, with pop culture and literary references jostling against one other. Despite the pace, the plot itself is a slow-burn, it only becoming clear somewhere past midway that that this isn’t merely a collection of (albeit connected) vignettes in flashback.
The story takes place in the shadow of the impeachment of President Fernando V Estregan who instead flips the script and calls a snap election, turning Philippine politics topsy-turvy. And Vita is in the middle of it all, compromising and comprising, seduced and seducing, in love and out, controlled and controlling, revered and condemned, observer and player, spilling beans as she goes.
Syjuco perhaps takes something of a risk in writing primarily via a woman’s voice and a mistress at that:
Like, why must the world act as if it’s impossible for a mistress to be a feminist? You know, at first, that was the toughest thing about mistresshood—there were no role models or self-help manuals about such love. No stars to help you navigate that tumultuous ocean. It’s unfair, honestly. In everyone’s first romances, when we’re lovesick teens, there are rom-coms and ballads to guide us from heartache to heartbreak.
But Vita also comes across as a sort of contemporary Filipino Columbia—another national personification created, it must be said, by men—albeit one with skin-tight outfits and designer bags rather than a star-spangled phrygian cap.
Syjuco is a very clever writer: a supermarket is a “museum of everyday anthropology”; Vita compares one of her lovers to one of the “shut pistachios” left ignored in the can. Another makes his own wine: “Chateau René-Pogel, a plushy Syrah from terraces hewn into limestone foothills above my ranch”; Vita comments “Can’t believe nobody’s realized what René-Pogel is spelled backwards.” The protagonist’s name itself—Vita Nova—contains a hidden message (whether ironic, aspirational or both at once), or is possibly an oblique reference to Dante; with Syjuco it can be hard to tell.
It helps to be more than a little au courant with Philippine politics. While it is easy to see recent president Rodrigo Duterte in Syjuco’s President Fernando V Estregan:
My God, I hate drugs! … the one thing I refuse to condone is drugs … I shall kill anyone threatening the youth of our nation …
Syjuco here as elsewhere slices and dices real people and history, for in his name and malapropisms (“they are barking up the wrong dog”, “do not throw stones or I will throw your glass house on your head!”), Estregan also resembles an earlier occupant of the position, Joseph Estrada. The book mentions a Bingbong, but who however is not (as one might expect) the son (“Junior”) of the unnamed “dictator”; Arriola Makapal Glorioso surely echoes Gloria Macapagal Arroyo.
There are numerous references to current issues: political corruption of course, poverty, but also overseas workers and the oft-debated relationship with China: “Newspaper front pages fill with grainy satellite images of Chinese navy forces on islands in the West Philippine Sea”; “investment from China … costing us only some useless islands …”.
In its rapid-fire delivery and cinematic scene-cuts, Syjuco’s new novel is not unlike those of some of his compatriots such as Gina Apostol, but in its use of monologue and focus on sex, there are also perhaps reflections of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Memories of My Melancholy Whores. There is, of course, something Latin American about the Philippines.
I Was the President Mistress!! is a bravura performance. The freeflow of social commentary, invective, half-truths (none of the first-person narrators are particularly reliable), name-dropping, jokes, slang is invigorating, but can also be exhausting. The novel requires attention. But still, it’s unique: you’re unlikely to read another novel quite like this one, either this year or, in all probability, in several years to come.