Books & Art

Sex, Power, and Elections in Miguel Syjuco's Sensational New Novel

“So recklessly does our world move now that ignorance outpaces understanding, and so many of us judge without thinking,” one character says.
IMAGE RENNELL SALUMBRE
ILLUSTRATOR WARREN ESPEJO

The new novel by Miguel Syjuco opens with a description of the presidential penis—a thick “birdie”—by Vita Nova, a starlet paramour-turned-politician in the first of a series of tell-all interviews about the most powerful man in the land.

I Was the President’s Mistress!! screams the font on the book cover that recalls the sensational tabloids of the ‘80s, or perhaps the cinema posters of decades past, showing women in various stages of undress. In this case, the headline is paired with a sketch of a long-haired woman with generous cleavage and painted lips and nails, holding in her arms a shirtless man with vaguely familiar sideburns, his faced blurred out.

Syjuco, the winner of the Man Asian Literary Prize for his 2010 work Ilustrado, again pens a brilliant novel that deftly explores the nooks and crannies of the different layers of Philippine society, from the capitalist Lupazes and Alayas to the families of victims of extra-judicial killings to the OFWs in the Middle East—their passports, their savings, and their dignity taken away from them.

Photo by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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The timing of the release of the novel in the first week of April by its publishers Farrar, Straus and Giroux in New York couldn’t be more apt. As real-life readers in the Philippines brace for the presidential election in May, on the page, Vita and her gallery of rogues prepare for a snap vote only weeks away.

Waiting in the wings in Vita’s world is Junior, the son of the “daddy dictator and mommy diva” who fled the country with billions, supposedly amassed after the strongman father discovered a cave full of gold abandoned by Yamashita, the Japanese general. 

More than the unexplained wealth, the self-righteous Bishop Baccante declares that Junior, “a cuddly shaggy-haired version of his father” is preparing a “second act for his father’s legacy of despotic entitlement.” But as Junior’s supporters ask, “Do we blame children for the sins of their parents?”

And then there’s Hope, the goody two-shoes Vice President, praised for her quick response during the pandemic, when the nation was under “EWANQ.” But while she led the Liberty Party (a.k.a. the Fuchsias) "with integrity," that is now dragging her down, as she falls "victim to cancel culture, blackmailed by the online mob.”

“So recklessly does our world move now that ignorance outpaces understanding, and so many of us judge without thinking,” says the bishop. 

Junior and Hope are but minor characters in the book however, cameo roles not given voices of their own. Half of the penetrating interviews are with Vita, the star attraction, interspersed with another dozen conversations with the different men who passed through her life, and some, her legs.

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The interviews with the different personalities, some who, on the surface appear to be one-dimensional, unattractive bad eggs anyone would ordinarily be happy to hate, show glimpses into their inner cores and what motivates them, Rashomon-style, and readers get to understand for themselves why Vita was enamored with them once upon a time, or at least pretended to be.

Thirteen interviews, more like monologues, really, 13 voices all their own. From the late-night, headache-inducing, disjointed ramblings of the actor-boxer populist president Fernando Estregan, dotted with curse words and ellipses—the most difficult chapter to get through— to One-Mig Sontua, Vita's clean-cut, first-love antivaxxer who now spouts conspiracy theories, to LeTrel Dyson, the beautiful black stallion of a man at the U.S. Embassy who gets fired for using the phrase “Negros Oriental” on his Instagram feed during a trip to Siquijor (his well-meaning, woke supervisor thought it terribly politically incorrect); to the sleazy warlord governor Rolex Aguirre who tells Vita he only has three months to live and wishes to “ taste, one final time, that feeling of love with an amazing woman,” Syjuco deliciously fleshes out real portraits of his characters, wet farts, nipple hair and all.

Miguel Syjuco

Photo by Rennell Salumbre.
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“I’ve sought to create characters whose experiences are nuanced, complex, and entirely foreign to mine. And whether or not I liked them much, I had to hear each of them out,” Syjuco says in his own words in the novel’s acknowledgements. “My characters, whom I refused to judge on the page so that I could consider all they had to teach from it—the good and especially the bad—will now be judged by you. Rightly so.”

And how do we judge Vita, the flawed but do-gooder entertainer who slept her way from homeless obscurity in bus stations to the bedrooms of power, first breaking into societal consciousness via a film playing a performer who invents the Mr. Sexy-Sexy dance that goes viral and sets the country on fire? All eyes are on her and her breasts as her clandestine beneath-the-mattress recordings lead to impeachment hearings, and later, a snap election.

How can the reader not fall in love with her the way all her men do? She’s an enigma of a woman, innocently naïve yet sexy, charming but at times irritating, vulnerable yet oh so strong, her heart constantly shattered but quickly taped up. She listens intently and learns from each of her mansplaining lovers before saying goodbye and easily hooking up with another.

“I won’t be some two-bit part in the background of someone’s novel, even if I’ll always be a hella flawed protagonist, the product of blind imaginings,” she says to her unseen interviewer in the novel. 

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We are utterly enthralled. When Vita dances, the reader dances. “Ooo, my sexy, sexy. My Mr. Sexy-Sexy.” When she sings, we sing along with her. “We had the right love at the wrong time.” Barry! We even get Rick-rolled. “Never gonna let you down… never gonna tell a lie and hurt you.” And then slow down as she channels Evita. “Through my wild days, my mad existence.”

Vita captures our hearts and our heads (both of them). We lust for her, we cheer for her. We stand by her as she maneuvers through life’s drug-laced highs and scrounges for leftovers at its lows. And as she climaxes, all we want is a happy ending. Syjuco generously allows us to have our own way with her. But that’s a whole other chapter altogether.

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Yvette Fernandez
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Yvette Fernandez was previously the editorial director of Esquire Philippines.
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