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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1582

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.

This through-the-looking-glass atmosphere, this sense of having stepped into a dark and sinister other world, is reflected in the Salvadoran use of language; indeed, linguistic illusion is a strong secondary theme in Salvador. Didion, adopting the persona of a journalist accustomed to the literalness of words, writes of the chilling Salvadoran usage of the word desaparecer, meaning “to disappear”:[It] is in Spanish both an intransitive and a transitive verb, and this flexibility has been adopted by those speaking English in El Salvador, as in John Sullivan was disappeared from the Sheraton; the government disappeared the students, there being no equivalent situation, and so no equivalent word, in English-speaking cultures.

“Disappear,” with its magical connotations, is used in El Salvador to describe people who have been abducted and very probably murdered either by government forces or by left-or right-wing death squads. That murderers usually go uncaptured or unidentified, that the motive behind political murders often goes unexplained, makes the notion of “disappearance” both appropriate and criminally self-delusory. This national capacity for metaphor extends, says Didion, to the Salvadoran use of numbers and statistics, which seldom bears much correspondence to the truth. Didion notes that Salvadorans tend to use numbers subjectively: A million, for example, might be used to denote any very large number, a practice that makes the use of statistics nonsensical.

Yet this persistent use of figurative language is not limited to Salvadoran nationals; English speakers, including American journalists and representatives of the United States government, have begun to adopt Salvadoran syntax “as if a linguistic deal had been cut.” Didion observes that high-flown language is often used to camouflage the brutal truth of the political situation: The muddled election, for example, is referred to as la solucion pacifica (the peaceful solution), while the mass murder of troublesome insurgents is termed “pacification.” Didion seems here to be recalling the British essayist and novelist George Orwell, whose 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language” argues that shoddy terminology leads to shoddy political thought and, ultimately, to political travesties being hidden beneath imprecise words. Certainly Didion would agree with Orwell that the complicity of the United States in the chaos that is El Salvador begins with the decision to accept duplicitous rhetoric.

Nor is Didion herself exempt from the corrupting influences of the place, its language, its climate; she admits at several points to falling victim to the pervasive atmosphere of confusion and terror. After a few days in El Salvador, this sensitive norteamericana becomes as desensitized as any Salvadoran to the nightly accumulation of bodies in the streets and at “body dumps”; after a few nights, this celebrity journalist becomes as skittish and paranoid as any Salvadoran wife, mother, or sister. Further, El Salvador induces in her a new way of seeing. In one of the book’s most darkly comic passages, Didion describes an American-style beauty contest, the “Senorita El Salvador” pageant, which is televised on the same evening that the earthquake occurs. In trying to get at the essence of the absurd events of this day—Didion had met earlier in the day with the former dictator’s grandson—she quotes a passage from Garcia Marquez’s 1975 novel, El otono del patriarca (The Autumn of the Patriarch, 1975). The quotation has to do with the novel’s hero, a South American dictator, taking as his lover a girl from the slums. Garcia Marquez, modern Latin America’s well-known novelist, is famous as a member of the literary school of Magical Realism, a style more reliant on fancy than on fact, on memory than on documentation. In his brilliant novels and short stories, for example, children are born with tails and old men sprout wings. Didion then admits that on the day of the luncheon, the beauty pageant, and the earthquake, she began to see Garcia Marquez “in a new light, as a social realist.” Thus, El Salvador has forced Didion to see things as a Salvadoran would see them; no longer a teller of fantastic tales, Garcia Marquez has become for her an objective observer of social and cultural reality.

Perhaps the most devastating comment on the perceptual change that El Salvador has on Didion, however, is contained in the book’s epigraph, a passage from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1902), the narrator of which has been sent into the African interior in search of his long-lost countryman, Kurtz, who has earlier been charged with “civilizing” the natives and colonializing the region. In the passage Didion quotes, the narrator, Marlow, has come upon an eloquent and rational report that Kurtz has written for his superiors at the International Society for the Suppression of Savage Customs. At the end of the document, however, Marlow finds a chilling postscript:There were no practical hints to interrupt the magic current of phrases, unless a kind of note at the foot of the last page, scrawled evidently much later, in an unsteady hand, may be regarded as the exposition of a method. It was very simple, and at the end of that moving appeal to every altruistic sentiment it blazed at you, luminous and terrifying, like a flash of lightning in a serene sky: “Exterminate all the brutes!”

Never again in the course of the book does Didion refer back to this passage, nor does she need to, for the import is clear: Having been indoctrinated to El Salvador and its savagery, its seemingly incurable “vocation for terror,” Didion is able at least in part to empathize with the rage that the crazed Kurtz felt at the alien culture in which he found himself. Didion makes a profound comment on the colonial impulse to Westernize, Christianize, Europeanize, Americanize members of other cultures when she admits her momentary urge instead to “exterminate” them.

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