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In the summer of 1982, American novelist, essayist, and journalist Joan Didion visited the war-torn Central American nation of El Salvador; Salvador is the record of what she found there. Didion’s stay in El Salvador came at a time when the United States’ policy in this tiny republic was very much under fire, and her analysis never strays far from the essentially political question of what the United States government hopes to gain in a seemingly irreconcilable conflict. Part reporter’s notebook, part ironic travelogue, Salvador defies categorization. It is perhaps best described as an extended meditation on the hopelessness of communication between North and South American cultures and, by extension, on the futility of the colonial drive to “Americanize” a culture with a different history and geography.

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The political situation into which Didion steps is complex. After years of brutal civil war between factions of the Right and Left, an American-style election has recently brought to power Jose Napoleon Duarte, the United States-backed “centrist” candidate for president. According to Didion, the administration’s official view of the election as a success, a demonstration of democracy in action, is simplistic and grotesquely optimistic. To the American government, El Salvador is a strategic stronghold in the fight against creeping Central and South American Communism; Didion’s El Salvador, contrasted throughout the essay with the official American interpretation, is a morass of incompetence, corruption, and bloodshed. Both the Cuban-and Soviet-backed Sandinistas on the Left and the forces of the Right, backed by the nation’s ruling classes and headed by Roberto D’Aubuisson, are, to Didion, equally to blame for the slaughter endemic to the area. Bodies literally line the streets of San Salvador, the capital city, and are thrown into huge dumps in outlying areas, victims of “death squads” affiliated with both ends of the political spectrum. Political allegiances, so important to the American government, lose their significance in Didion’s analysis, in which the most appalling aspect of the situation is neither left-nor right-wing extremism but the nonchalance with which daily “body counts” are taken.

Salvador (ironically, the word means “savior” in Spanish) is organized roughly chronologically according to Didion’s stay in El Salvador, beginning with her landing at the improbably located national airport and ending with her anxiety-ridden departure from that same airport. The middle portions of the brief book are concerned with various excursions, each of which becomes part of the pervasive sense of unease that to Didion characterizes the country and its people: lunch with the American ambassador, Deane Hinton; a day trip to the war-ravaged town of Gotera; a pointless and irritating cultural festival in the village of Nahuizalco; a symbolically significant visit to El Salvador’s National Cathedral, site of the murder of Archbishop Arnulfo Romero. While any of these events might figure in a conventional travelogue, each takes on an eerie “through the looking glass” quality in Didion’s treatment, interspersed as these episodes are with Didion’s commentary on the surreal atmosphere of this illogical and cruel place and with ironically placed quotations from official State Department documents about the American government’s role in the “democratization” of El Salvador. Two strictly “literary” quotations, taken from the works of the Polish-born British novelist Joseph Conrad and the Colombian novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez, lend the essay the illusory and symbolic quality of fiction.

Bibliography

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 74

Forche, Carolyn. “El Salvador: An Aide-Memoire,” in The American Poetry Review. X (July/August, 1981), pp. 3-7.

Garcia Marquez, Gabriel. The Autumn of the Patriarch, 1975.

Hoge, Warren. Review in The New York Times Book Review. LXXXVIII (March 13, 1983), p. 3.

Lyons, Gene. Review in Newsweek. CI (March 28, 1983), p. 69.

Sheppard, R.Z. Review in Time. CXXI (April 4, 1983), p. 76.

Sontag, Susan. “Trip to Hanoi,” in Styles of Radical Will, 1969.

Whitehead, Laurence. Review in The Times Literary Supplement. June 24, 1983, p. 663.

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