Since the journalist-narrator of Salvador is so often at a loss for words, since the time-honored practices of her trade seem so often to fail her in this alien territory, it is fitting that the word “ineffable” appears so frequently in this disturbing book. Didion seems constantly unable to “report” this story in conventional terms, for the rules keep changing and the lines are not clearly drawn. “Objectivity” seems impossible. The “gringa” writer well-known for her 1975 essay “On the Mall” writes of a visit to San Salvador’s largest shopping mall:This was a shopping center that embodied the future for which El Salvador was presumably being saved, and I wrote it down dutifully, this being the kind of “color” I knew how to interpret, the kind of inductive irony, the detail that was supposed to illuminate the story. As I wrote it down I realized that I was no longer much interested in this kind of irony, that this was a story that would not be illuminated by such details, that this was a story that would perhaps not be illuminated at all, that this was perhaps even less a “story” than a true noche obscura [dark night].
Elsewhere, Didion writes of a dinner meeting with the grandson of a former El Salvadoran dictator, that for the “first time in my life . . . I had been in the presence of obvious ‘material’ and felt no professional exhilaration at all, only personal dread.” The professional journalist is rendered helpless not only by the illogical nature of the place but also by the omnipresent sense of personal danger. Mindful that American and European journalists have been murdered and that their murderers have gone uncaptured, Didion writes more than once of being “humiliated by fear.” Thus, Salvador is less a story than a mood piece about an unspeakably terrifying time and place.
The sense of place is ubiquitous in Salvador, Didion’s thesis being that the country itself, the very landscape, goes far toward explaining the seemingly irrational behavior of its people and the indecipherable political situation that obtains in the last quarter of the twentieth century. Once again, Didion links the climate of El Salvador with her own background and with earlier essays with which her readers might be familiar. Recalling perhaps her 1966 essay “Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream,” which speaks of the nerve-shattering effect of the Santa Ana wind of Southern California, Didion tells of the contagious nervousness brought on by “earthquake weather” but then as quickly denies the link between El Salvador and the California of her childhood: “It is always earthquake weather in San Salvador, and the jitters are endemic.” Nervous tension is terminal in El Salvador, a ghastly by-product of climate and geography.
Like a good reporter, Didion tries at one point to link the political situation in modern El Salvador with the country’s history, with the usurpation of native culture by European and North American colonialism, but then realizes that such a linkage would be facile, since there was very little native culture to usurp. Writing of the cultural festival mentioned earlier, Didion recalls that El Salvador has always been a sort of no-man’s-land, “even before the Spaniards arrived. The great Mesoamerican cultures [such as that of the Aztecs] penetrated this far south only shallowly. The great South American cultures [such as that of the Incas] thrust this far north only sporadically.” Deprived of both native tradition and a distinguished modern history—Didion tellingly points out that El Salvador has no libertador, no great national hero—Salvadorans lack the sense of national identity that North Americans and even most other South and Central Americans take for granted, an absence which adds yet another aspect to the confusion.
(The entire section is 1582 words.)
The Reagan Administration’s Central America policy was much on the minds of many Americans at the time of Didion’s visit to El Salvador; to many, the administration seemed, both in El Salvador and in Nicaragua, to be repeating the mistakes that had sunk the United States in the quagmire of Vietnam some two decades earlier. To the administration’s critics, the urge to halt the spread of Marxist regimes south of the United States’ borders was both unnecessary and futile; the conservative Reagan Administration, however, insisted that Soviet influence lay behind the flourishing of Marxist rebellion and cited the Monroe Doctrine as justification for putting down left-wing insurgence.
Joan Didion’s readers already knew, at the time of Salvador, that she was no left-wing intellectual. Right of center in her politics, she was but one of many thinking Americans who found American solutions to the Salvadoran problem misdirected and, to use one of Didion’s favorite phrases, “beside the point.” In the confusion of El Salvador, Didion found a perfect outlet for her formidable powers of observation and cultural criticism; earlier, she had written near-legendary studies of cultural chaos in the essays “Slouching Towards Bethlehem,” a study of the San Francisco countercultural movement of the early 1960’s, and “The White Album,” which considers the frantic revolutionary years of the later 1960’s. Both essays share much in common with Salvador: the alienated narrator desperately trying to make sense of a senseless situation, the characteristic sharp observation of minute detail, the darkly comic sense of irony. In 1987, Didion turned her attention to the Cuban community of southern Florida, and the result was a book-length study titled, simply, Miami.