‘I Was the President’s Mistress!!’:  Ridicule of the privileged class

Farrar, Straus and Giroux (April 5, 2022)
384 pages

By Allen Gaborro

Miguel Syjuco’s literary talent and writing flair are pulsatingly progressive, demanding, and risqué. This was the case with his seminal novel, “Illustrado.” It is even more so with his latest craft of fiction, the titillatingly-titled “I Was the President’s Mistress!!”

Entwined throughout Syjuco’s novel are a stock of internal and external montages, critiques, and revelations. Together they produce unsparing illustrations of Philippine culture, politics, and society.

The recurring figure in “President’s Mistress” is the story’s presidential inamorata, Vita Nova. A leading light persona of the music and cinematic industry, the glamorous and seductive Nova served at the bodily pleasure of the president of the Philippine republic.

Nova takes part in a series of interviews conducted by “Miguel Syjuco,” the real author’s conjured scribe for the celebrity’s “tell-all memoir.” And she is not shy about it by any means. Nova has a lot to say to the fictional Syjuco about the many men—both common and powerful—who fall into the purview of her amorous divulgences.

It is evidently through Nova that Syjuco attempts to expose readers to the cornucopia of public and private codes, forms of persuasion, shifting sands of interests, bouts of poignancy, and hardwired behaviors that try the Filipino mind, body, and soul in our contemporary times.

As Syjuco writes, “Our setting: a sweating, heaving country, where the future’s always promised, and men act like boys, and women are punished for not putting up with it.”

Good naturedly, and equal parts cynically, and with more than a fair amount of woke gravitas and sensory roguishness, Syjuco enmeshes us in a riot of socio-political observations, foul and witty language, colloquial humor, and associative historicity. Given all this, it is possible to get overwhelmed by the cascade of Syjuco’s words and sentences that force and crowd their way into our consciousness.

As a result, going the distance with Syjuco’s meandering and disproportionately condensed drama can be at times an uphill climb. The sheer volume of Syjuco’s creation, combined with his tireless writing energy which circulates relentlessly through the text, can take its toll and tempt even the most receptive empirical reader towards a mind-numbing surrender.

“President’s Mistress’s” restive, bustling, moving target of a narrative however, has a method to its madness. The model reader—as opposed to the aforementioned empirical reader—will concede there’s more than meets the eye to Syjuco’s lack of a consistent plot and the irregular properties of his novel’s content and structure.

Keen observers of “President’s Mistress” will recognize that beyond Syjuco’s droll and witty mocking and ridicule of the privileged classes, there is a sober irreverence, indeed a serious endeavor to ensure that truth and justice see the light of day in a country where they are not easy to come by.

With considerable effort and a striking sense of targeted deprecation to match, it gradually becomes clear that Syjuco’s vision was to make his work much else besides 300-plus pages of jocular characterization and his familiarity with the highs and lows of Philippine cultural discourse. 

“President’s Mistress” is, all in all, a political piece of literature intended to provoke its audience into detaching themselves from their collective stupor and indifference about the world, specifically Philippine society and the unequal power relationships inherent in it. 

To help sway readers with the righteousness of his sharp-elbowed polemic, Syjuco employs a contemptuous tone in going after former president Rodrigo Duterte (appearing as the fictionalized character of Fernando Estregan) and his bloody drug war, the affluent (“Too many oligarchs with power”), the scandalous police forces (“too many scalawag cops wanting power”), and the nefarious politicians (“the politics of politicians—their new victims and villains”). 

From Philippine overseas workers, to the country’s deplorable sex trade, to relations with an expansionist China, to the monopolization of the country’s resources by the elite and much more, Miguel Syjuco in “I Was the President’s Mistress!!” draws on the real-life issues and human themes that have presented challenges for Filipinos in the past, challenges that hound the present, and regrettably, are likely to continue do so in the future.

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