Salvador by Joan Didion

Joan Didion and her husband spent a few weeks in El Salvador in 1982. It was a dangerous place to be. Salvador is a short book about their visit. The book begins with a passage from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, which is fitting, given what it was like to be in El Salvador in 1982:

Terror is the given of the place. Black-and-white police cars cruise in pairs, each with the barrel of a rifle extruding from an open window. Roadblocks materialize at random, soldiers fanning out from trucks and taking positions, fingers always on triggers, safeties clicking on and off. Aim is taken as if to pass the time. Every morning “El Diario de Hoy” and “La Prensa Grafica” carry cautionary stories….A mother and her two sons hacked to death in their beds by eight “desconocidos”, unknown men….Same morning, different story: the unidentified bodies of three young men … their faces partially destroyed by bayonets….

This is how the book ends:

In the week that I am completing this report, … the offices in the Hotel Camino Real in Sal Salvador of the Associated Press, United Press International, …. NBC News, CBS News, and ABC News were raided and searched by members of the El Salvador National Police carrying submachine guns; fifteen leaders of legally recognized political and labor groups opposing the government of El Salvador were disappeared; … [the American ambassador] said that he was “reasonably certain” that these disappearances had not been conducted under Salvadoran government orders; … and the State Department announced that the Reagan administration believed that it had “turned the corner” in its campaign for political stability in Central America.

I’ve read a lot of Joan Didion’s journalism over the years, but have often felt I didn’t understand the point she was making. In an article called “The Picture In Her Mind”, Paul Gleason agrees that her “political meaning” often “remains obscure”. But he has an explanation:

Didion’s journalism from the Sixties and Seventies seems newly relevant because then (as now) American history had taken a few alarming turns, and everyone wanted to know why and what to do about it. While crossing the nation on book tour she heard the same question from every TV and radio host: “Where are we heading?” Today, the questions remain the same. “Why is this happening?” And: “What can we do to change it?” But Didion regarded answers to these questions with skepticism, bordering on contempt. At the heart of grand narratives about who we are and where we are heading she saw self-deception in the face of meaningless disorder. Instead of trying to change the world, Didion was content, as she writes in “South and West”, “to find out, as usual, what was making the picture in my mind”….

Didion had concluded “something about the stories people live by”:

“We live entirely, especially if we are writers, by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the ‘ideas’ with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience.” Her disillusionment with her own story, it seems, positioned her especially well to see through the self-deceptions of others.

In Salvador, she reports what it was like to be in El Salvador in 1982, but makes it clear that what people there commonly referred to as “the situation” was too senseless to make sense of.

Salvador by Joan Didion

Joan Didion and her husband visited El Salvador for two weeks in 1982. This wasn’t a vacation, since a civil war had begun a few years earlier, after many years of political unrest. As usual, the U.S. was supporting the military dictatorship, not the left-wing guerillas. The war wouldn’t end for another 10 years. It was common for ordinary citizens to be tortured or to disappear. When four American nuns and another woman were raped and murdered by the National Guard in 1980, the U.S. suspended military aid to the Salvadoran government, but just for six weeks. The United Nations later estimated that more than 70,000 people were killed during the war.

One reason to read Salvador is to see how little has changed: “The American effort in El Salvador seemed based on auto-suggestion, a dreamwork devised to obscure any intelligence that might trouble the dreamer.” A later Congressional report argued that “the intelligence was itself a dreamwork, tending to support policy … ‘rather than inform it’, providing ‘reinforcement more than illumination’, ‘ammunition rather than analysis’.”

Another reason to read this book is to enjoy Didion’s prose. A couple of examples: 

“For the several hours that preceded the earthquake I had been seized by the kind of amorphous bad mood that my grandmother believed an adjunct of what is called in California ‘earthquake weather’, a sultriness, a stillness, an unnatural light; the jitters. In fact there was no particular prescience about my bad mood, since it is always earthquake weather in San Salvador, and the jitters are endemic.”

“Colonel Waghelstein is massively built, crew-cut, tight-lipped, and very tanned, almost a cartoon of the American military presence, and the notion that he had come up from Panama to deal with the press was novel and interesting, in that he had made, during his tour in El Salvador, a pretty terse point of not dealing with the press”.  (4/13/13)