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'I Was the President's Mistress' is a tell-all memoir with a kilig factor

By ALFRED A. YUSON, The Philippine STAR Published Mar 14, 2022 5:00 am Updated Mar 14, 2022 10:37 am

On April 5, Farrar, Straus and Giroux releases I Was the President’s Mistress!! by Miguel Syjuco, the author’s long-awaited second novel since his debut Ilustrado, which won the MAN Asia Prize for the Novel in 2007.

This 384-page book is what would generally be called a tough read, since it doesn’t observe the familiar conventions of a novel. But for a sophisticated reader who might appreciate all the tricks of the long-form craft as it continues to evolve, the engagement could be effervescently entertaining.

It’s ushered in by intriguing blurbs from notable bylines, such by Salman Rushdie: “This brilliant black comedy is a wild, and wildly unpredictable, ride through the dark side of the Philippines. Miguel Syjuco is his country’s most original and unflinching literary voice.”

The title immediately recalls that real-life scandal that involved then President Ferdinand Marcos and American movie starlet Dovie Beams, who had come to Manila for a movie project conceived by the usual brown-nosing underlings.

For Filipino readers, this should then be another plus for the novel.

The mock subtitle has it as “The Celebrity Tell-all Memoir” — by Vita Nova (purportedly with the author) — itself preceded by mock blurbs, such as one by an Ambassador K. Sisboy Pansen: “A scandalous… kaleidoscopic… five-star… steaming… cannonade… of brazen fabulism… and amalgamated ratf*ckery.” (All asterisks added.)

There’s a page for Content Warning, another for a Publisher’s Note, except that it’s from an imaginary publisher, who recounts that “On the afternoon before the bombing, an email was sent to us that included, as attachments, twenty-four voice recordings…. It is our responsibility to publish these materials unabridged. It is yours to make sense of them.”

Caveat emptor. You have been duly warned. It’s unrelenting bawdiness that Syjuco serves with gusto. The sender of the first email is Syjuco himself. Among those mentioned as having been interviewed are President Fernando V. Estregan, Governor Rolex Aguirre, the journalist Furio Almondo, and the “Leader of the Opposition,” Nurudin Bansamoro.

Begins the transcript from Vita Nova, the first of her 13 taped interviews: “I know you’re wondering — yes, it’s true, his birdie is thick, as he’s always saying, but like a thumb is to a finger, and hard to find beneath the paunch and hair that make a nest for it to rest on its two eggs — or repose, if metaphor’s more politically correct re: the pitutoys of powerful men. His is bigger than you’d guess, smaller than he thinks — and would prove his downfall, obviously. On his lap I’d lay my head and talk to it: Hello there, little sir, you look noble, endearing — why do you quiver with such rage?”

Miguel Syjuco’s grand effort in rendering our country large if specific, not only to the latticework of libido and politics, deserves universal reckoning of the kilig factor.

As she goes on, we realize that we’re in the present, with the mention of millions of Twitter followers, and that she’s about to testify in her lover’s impeachment case. There go the pigeonhole parallels with Marcosian history. In their place are interminable insinuations, inside jokes (as with the locals’ names), subtle and unsubtle digs, literary ventriloquism, manic role-playing, burlesque of personal recollections by a multiplicity of voices that overlap with their narrative arcs, and all the possible ribaldry that can overflow from a treasure matrix where sex intersects with politics.

“… (H)ere we go: Vita Nova, hashtag-no-filter. Welcome to her celebrity tell-all memoir. 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.”

Enumerated is a litany of characters as ”the players.” But what’s played is gameswomanship by a tattletale mistress (or slut) seemingly shorn of the querida’s customary etiquette. She’s become a social media influencer, after all, among many other things, from model to a vice-presidential candidate.

As the ghostwriter cum ventriloquist, Syjuco piles on the Pinoy goods on composite characters, starting with the common lore surrounding Nando Estregan, the southpaw welterweight champion turned movie star slash producer turned mayor before he becomes Chief Executive, when he says he’d like to slaughter 3.2 million druggies. After being ousted in the fourth People Power Revolution, as orchestrated by the Liberty Party led by former president Respeto Reyes, he avoids a jail term for plunder with the help of Chief Justice Arriola Makapal Glorioso, who in turn gets impeached by Reyes. But Estregan wins a second term, thanks to former Communist Kingsley Belli’s “YouTube chats, (and) his book of Estreganisms.”

Author Miguel Syjuco

Belli Intros Vita to single malts like Lagavulin and Laphroaig, and eventually the President. His favorite joke: “(W)hat’s more beguiling than a rose at a piano? Tulips on an organ.”

It’s a dizzying parody of contemporary Pinoy political history, the personages of which are complemented by fringe specials like the neighborhood’s harelipped rumormonger, and an unano action star turned party list congressman of Midgets’ Alliance of the Philippines. Then there’s spokesperson Harry Puque.

Plus, as Vita snorts: “Puns: the beating heart of Filipino humor — cuz life’s too hard for complicated jokes.”

President Estregan’s transcript, after Vita’s, is typically fragmentary of speech and reeking with revulsion, against Hope Virdsinsia the lady vice president and the “f*cking Fuchsias,” oligarchs whose names are a jumble of familiarity, and among many others, the former mayor of “that itchy city” (get it?) and his son “plundering the coffers to build his city hall parking lot.” Estregan’s own daughter Farrah is now mayor of Korpus Kristi, to which he can always return after jet-skiing through islands. And oh yes, China and America figure in his rant.

Eventually, we realize that the composite Estregan is distinct from the past “Dictator” who had his “own lovey-dovey, which plunged him into hot water with the wily Iron Butterc*nt.” There’s a Junior circling around in the fringes.

Senator Nur wishes to be the first ever Muslim Veep, as Hope’s partner, but eventually goes for the top plum himself, with Vita for his Veep when she falls out with Estregan. She’s had beauty pageant training, after all, and has absorbed so much of worldly wisdom from a parade of lusting men.

'I Was the President's Mistress' is what would generally be called a tough read, since it doesn't observe the familiar conventions of a novel.

Deepak has taken her to a poetry reading at Sanctum. Oh, he revels in Jesus jokes, and other racist ones. The Jesuit Father Yoda she classifies as a “gentlemanyak.” Aging warlord Rolex Aguirre is a gourmand who treats Vita to Teuscher champagne truffles. Bishop Verdolagas Baccante, OP, sports encyclopedic knowledge on the history of the Roman Senate, the Popes and synods. He also mentions “Mitsubishops … accepting Japanese SUVs from the President.”

These men’s transcripts that alternate with Vita’s own all read as non-stop paragraphs, which can get quite stuffy. The language of their respective articulations varies, to the author’s credit. The young DJ Red is all about don’t cancel me and being so woke to drugs and alcohol and sex. Another young lover, One-Mig, is obsessively into porn, while the youngest and first lover, the erstwhile teen Loy Bonifacio, speaks the simplest for the final transcript.

Vita herself confesses: “I wanted to revel in the kilig factor, the joy of baduy.” She disses another girl: “I’ve got heels higher than her moral standards.” And she relishes the memory of sex with her black American lover LeTrel: “It was so good the neighbors had to smoke a cigarette after.” Since it was “Like making love to a centaur chieftain on the eve before a doomed battle.”

On being a mistress, she muses soberly: “What’s its opposite? Master. Mistresses are mastered. Our only tools: affections, tantrums, threats and truths. You’re the ultimate luxury, but luxury’s always extra — extraordinary or extraneous. Birthdays, holidays, sometimes it felt like independence was the terminal sentence.”

Obversely, what’s made capital is everything outlandish and outrageous. The au courantism often becomes parenthetical, as on a zombie trudge through world history, beyond what’s mostly Philippine. Hitler, Oprah, Obama, Merkel are but a few of the big namedrops. Maria Ressa holds the line. And Vita naturally picks up a copy of Jullie Yap Daza’s Etiquette for Mistressses, just as she has to mention “pekpek shorts” and girlish memories (with Loy) of Storck, Choc Nut, and White Rabbit.

All the heavily localized razzmatazz makes one wonder how the book will be received by a foreign audience that’s not as steeped in “locavore” helpings. I hope their interest doesn’t perk up only when Deepak and LT take Vita abroad, each in his own time. Miguel Syjuco’s grand effort in rendering our country large if specific, not only to the latticework of libido and politics, deserves universal reckoning of the kilig factor.