Since a U.S.-favored junta took power in El Salvador in 1979, journalists have swarmed over the country to prey on its social decay, its suffering refugees and its rotting bodies. Frequently, an event—an election or an increase in military aidpromises change and attracts press attention. Although Joan Didion’s Salvador is the chronicle of her visit in June, 1982, the Salvadoran situation still exhibits every emotional and physical horror that Didion describes. There also remains the phenomenon of the two-week wonders like Didion who document their fright from the moment they land at the airport. Then they pay obligatory visits to the U.S. Embassy, the city morgue and the human rights commission, risk a quick sortie into the countryside and, finally, wing home with their heads full of nightmares and their notebooks full of the same familiar stuff.
This is not to deny that Salvador features some fine writing. Didion’s previous work has established her as the Meryl Streep of U.S. letters, an intelligent craftsman of high-strung sensitivity. The scenes are taut, tense and elegantly performed: Didion trapped at dinner in San Salvador with a man who may be linked to the death squads; Didion pretending not to notice soldiers taking a young boy away. But the net
effect is to make the tragedy of El Salvador and its 38,000 dead appear as if it is happening inside the writer’s head.
As with Streep, the repeated close-ups of Didion suffering can be grating. But there is also no contesting her ability to deliver an intelligent line. “I was struck,” writes Didion, “by the miniature aspect of the country, an entire republic smaller than some California counties, the very circumstance that has encouraged the illusion that the place can be managed, salvaged, a kind of pilot project, like TVA [Tennessee Valley Authority].” In the context of the book’s tour of piled bodies and diplomatic blunders, such comments reveal an exquisite appreciation of political irony.
But other than needing quarry on which to unleash a few good lines, it is not clear why Didion bothered to write the book, because she has nothing new to say. The real irony is that she is guilty of the sin she pins on U.S. policymakers—presuming that she can “manage” so complex a country in only two weeks and 108 pages. As well, on such lean material the special tricks of Didion’s craft stand out like huge joints and heavy strings on a scrawny marionette. Using the Californian language of film, so pervasive in her previous books— “events out of synch” and scenarios that “won’t play”—she has no fresh vocabulary left to communicate El Salvador’s extreme horror.
The book’s biggest disappointment is Didion’s failure to think clearly through the muddled political debates.
Instead, the book reveals that what has passed for intelligence and lucidity in Didion’s previous prose is partly trompe l’oeil: forever using such terms as “exactly,” “precisely,” “exclusively” and “which is what I meant when I said,” her prose gives the impression that its author has a firm grasp on the minute intricacies of the situation. But she fails to address solutions. She shrugs off her lack of contact with the antigovernment forces, limits discussion of U.S. policy options to a couple of ineffective paragraphs and ignores discussion of how and why the United States got involved in the first place. Didion prefers to react rather than to analyse; shuddering is her true forte.
At best the book offers, to anyone who has not read a newspaper in three years, a nicely written but incomplete recapitulation of the Salvadoran situation. At the same time, it opens to ridicule the journalists, some serious, some mere holocaust groupies, who have gone to Central America to make their reputations. What is truly ridiculous is the presumption, which Didion shares with many of them, that “During the two weeks my husband and I spent in El Salvador I came to understand the exact mechanism of terror.” A genuine understanding of the exact mechanism of terror is an unlikely product of a two-week excursion with a guaranteed return ticket home. — VAL ROSS
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