Sex Goddess, Celebrity and the Best Hope for Her Country

By Miguel Syjuco

It’s a rare novel that leaves you reeling simultaneously with admiration, exhaustion, amazement at its author’s reach and skill, and desolation at the world it spreads out before you. Add to that a dose of borderline despair for the future of our species, and you have a sense of how you’re likely to feel by the end of Miguel Syjuco’s flawed but formidable political satire, “I Was the President’s Mistress!!”

Syjuco, who won the Man Asian Literary Prize for his previous novel, “Ilustrado,” is an expatriate Filipino writer, born in 1976 to a prominent Manila family, with a globe-trotting résumé that includes an M.F.A. from Columbia, a Ph.D. from the University of Adelaide, a professorship at N.Y.U. Abu Dhabi, a stint at The New Yorker and an advisory position with the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime. “I must humbly acknowledge my privilege and limitations,” he notes in the wary way of his generation. The privilege becomes evident as the book unleashes its vision of interlocking corruptions among the spectacularly decadent elite presiding over Asia’s oldest democracy. These movers and shakers may have been caricatured for comic effect, but the sickly-sweet flavor of their lives comes across with an authenticity that suggests long and intimate exposure. The “limitations” are harder to discern. Whether by sheer diligence (“I must constantly expand, deepen and evolve my understanding” continues the disarming author’s note) or just some superior force of imagination, Syjuco manages to get the other half of society — the migrant workers, slum-dwellers, disenfranchised minorities — onto the page almost as vividly as the kleptocrats and media moguls. Novelistic empathy is observed to a fault: There are almost too many claims on the reader’s attention, too powerfully pressed, for the book to stand a chance of working in any conventional way.

The text purports to be the transcripts of 24 interviews recorded by the author over two feverish months between the upcoming impeachment of a noxious populist president, Fernando Estregan (based on the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte, but with distinct Trumpian notes), and the final rally of his former mistress and current rival, a day before the country goes to the polls. Twelve of the interviews are with the ex-mistress, Vita Nova, a seamstress’s daughter turned sex goddess, media celebrity and aspiring national savior. The rest, alternating with hers, feature her former lovers, starting with the president and parading backward in time to her teen sweetheart: a gallery of outgrown, outworn or outmaneuvered men who have collectively furnished the indomitable Vita with an advanced education in the arts of transactional eroticism and remorseless self-promotion.

With the questioner’s contributions mostly marked as “inaudible,” these interviews are essentially dramatic monologues, and like the classics of the genre they are rich with deliberate evasiveness and accidental disclosure. Voice is a key part of the effect. Syjuco writes in English peppered with Filipinisms, and has fashioned a flexible, pun-riddled argot that adapts itself beautifully to a range of types, from sinister Catholic bishop to crass party animal, fat-cat provincial governor to crazed conspiracy theorist.

In Estregan’s case, verbal manglings and bursts of incoherent bluster create a kind of noise-picture of stupidity in power: “Let them impeach … they are barking up the wrong dog … Why should I be afraid? Fear cannot … I will never cower … I’m no squealing, limp-wristed bading [homosexual] … my solemn duties.” With the bishop, Yoda-like syntactic inversions (“vigilant we must be”) convey the coiling motions of a dangerously guileful mind. The provincial governor, a prodigy of corruption, treats the interviewer to a banquet while spouting comically outrageous justifications for his regime of open graft and nepotism (“only two of the Twelve Apostles were not related to our Lord Jesus Christ”), breaking off periodically to call for his steward in an inspired echo of Macbeth calling for Seyton as the world collapses around him: “Respeto! The calamansi-vodka sorbet!”

Vita herself gushes like a YouTube influencer on autoflirt, her performative candor effervescing around a rod of calculating self-interest as she comments on the unfolding political crisis and plies her questioner (who seems to be rapidly falling for her charms) with carefully curated anecdotes about her life and loves. Here she is welcoming him to their ninth interview, just after a rally for an Islamic politician to whom she has temporarily attached herself:

“Namaste! That crowd, right? Amazeballs. The campaign’s going super good. Top of the polls! Me and Nur, only two weeks from victory day. Don’t I look fetch in fuchsia? Thanks for coming all this way. Let me close this door … There. 🎵 Just the two of us. 🎵Feels like ages. Have you been working out? Your aura’s so gangster.”

The drawback with these aggressive verbal stylings is that a little of them goes a long way. The men are restricted to a single monologue each, which feels about right. But Vita, whose idiolect necessarily treads a fine line between amusing and annoying (the story requires her to remain lovable even as she appalls), has 12 rounds, and at a certain point the fire hose of tabloid scandal and porn-tinged political machination that is her life threatens to overwhelm.

That’s no doubt intentional — the pervasive degradation of politics is a major theme — but it makes for some wearying stretches. The problem isn’t helped by a certain lack of narrative propulsion. Most of the interview material points back into the past, while the real-time action of the impeachment drama happens entirely offstage. There are certainly suspenseful questions around the latter: Who will testify? Will the president declare martial law? How will the various fake news and smear campaigns play out? But we hear about these matters only incidentally, as the interviewees allude to them in passing. It’s an interesting formal device, but it mutes the story.

So we are left with the lovers’ monologues. If these were just polished exercises in voicing and mimicry, I’m not sure the book would be worth the demands it makes. But they are much more than that. The best of them strike me as miniature masterpieces of the form, combining technical virtuosity with a psychological penetration that exposes the precise emotional dynamic driving each of these warped and riven figures, and then traces its evolution into their political outlook. The result is that the often repellent beliefs these men hold are presented with an unnervingly sympathetic understanding. The bigot, the zealot, the self-serving “patriot” have rarely had their case made for them so lucidly in a work of progressive-minded fiction. To read the interview with Estregan’s spokesman, a former Marxist suffering from “the fatigue of piety,” is to feel on your own nerves the corrosive power of political disenchantment. To subject yourself to the virtuoso cadenzas of QAnon-style madness spewing from another lover, One-Mig, is to feel the potent toxicity of advanced conspiracy theory bloom in your own veins.

The lovers aren’t all total monsters. There’s a semi-honest journalist, a couple of semi-likable (and very funny) stoners and scenesters; there’s Nur, who articulates the central vision of inequality and injustice against which this raging protest of a book has clearly been written. But Vita’s politics seem cobbled together from good and bad alike. That she is almost certainly the best hope for her country is a chilling notion, all the more so for the resemblance of that tottering republic to our own.

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