Forgiving Imelda Marcos

  • By Nathan Go
  • Farrar, Straus and Giroux
  • 240 pp.

This poignant debut asks: Who’s entitled to offer absolution?

Forgiving Imelda Marcos

Forget about the shoes.

The thousands of pairs uncovered after Imelda Marcos fled the Philippines in 1986, along with 15 mink coats, 500 formal gowns, and 900 handbags, were merely symbols of extravagance and garish taste, the lifestyle of the rich and infamous. Far worse were the billions of dollars stolen by Imelda and her husband, Ferdinand, from the Filipino people during the couple’s reign. Not to mention the cozying up to the world’s oppressive regimes, the imposing of martial law, the graft, the racketeering, and the shady circumstances surrounding the 1983 assassination of Senator Benigno Aquino, the strongest of the Marcos’ political foes.

Forgiving Imelda Marcos, the debut novel from the talented Nathan Go, immediately begs the question: Forgive her for what? And who, exactly, is privileged to forgive?

The answer lies with Lito Macaraeg, the personal chauffeur for Benigno’s widow, Corazon “Cory” Aquino, the woman who eventually defeated Ferdinand Marcos for the presidency. Reaching the end of her life, Cory asks for one more trip from Lito, a journey from Manila to Baguio City for a rendezvous with Imelda to seek a moment of redemption between the two women most responsible for the modern state of the Philippines.

At the time the novel begins, Lito is running out of time. Alone and dying in a hospital, he reaches out to his estranged journalist son in America, promising him a “scoop” beneficial to his career, and shares through a series of letters the story of the drive with Cory Aquino and the secret meeting between the two old rivals, the oligarch and the reformer. Notionally a gift to his prodigal son, Lito’s letters soon expand and digress into the tale of his hardscrabble life; the role of his own largely neglectful father; the circuitous journey Lito took from a communist-guerrilla commune in the mountains to being taken in as a young man by the Aquinos; how he met his son’s mother; and, ultimately, the consequences of his lifetime separation from his child.

The two narrative strands weave together to form a kind of meditation on love and redemption, personal and national grief, and fathers and sons forsaken and restored. Cory’s pilgrimage to confront Imelda propels the novel, giving it a picaresque delight. They stop for burgers and fries, teasing each other with walrus tusks. The car breaks down and threatens an appointment. They visit a local church and are enthralled by its choir.

Set against the build-up of the journey is the discursive tale of Lito’s life, his education, and his disappointment with himself, all told with dollops of speculation and longing for some greater meaning to it all. At times, his confessions come across as a heavy burden to lay upon a son — especially one who has been largely abandoned — and feel like something between a penance and a justification for that son being a lot like his old man.

Recipient of the 2017-2018 T.K. Wong Fellowship and a former PEN America Emerging Voices fellow, Go doesn’t shy away from the hard questions asked by his characters. He’s following a convention in historical fiction, writing from the point of view of a figure at the periphery of well-known and very real people telling it aslant. And he’s familiar, as well, with the challenges of the epistolary novel, a monological one at that.

We are asked to believe that Lito can craft such an intricate structure with poetic, sophisticated language. For a self-educated man, he has an impressive understanding of literary tropes (one might think he should be a writer), and his letters often go places letters rarely do in recapturing dialogue and scene. But these are mere fillips; forgive one, forgive all. I resisted for a long time, but the charming Lito and Cory won me over.

The author writes with a confidence, willing to pause for the philosophical considerations he provokes. Fortunately, the car journey is never far away, and Go leavens the existential bits of the story with quiet beauty and insights into a culture about which most Americans have only the foggiest of notions. The real tragedy of the excesses of the Marcos regime is the long poverty and terrible injustices it inflicted on the lives of ordinary Filipinos; in these subdued, descriptive passages, Go writes like a redemptive angel.

There’s even a big surprise in the end for Cory and Imelda, one that may require the reader’s forgiveness, or at the very least, their understanding and indulgence. Perhaps that’s all anyone can ask for.

[Editor’s note: This review originally ran in 2023.]

Keith Donohue is the author of The Stolen Child and four other novels.

Believe in what we do? Support the nonprofit Independent!
comments powered by Disqus