Thursday, June 23, 2022

Salvador by Joan Didion

Reporters write about moments, about places, about the intersection of the two: what it's like to be here when it is now. Some pieces are more obvious about it than others.

The novella-length essay Salvador is very obvious: this is El Savador in 1982. It may be germane to other places and other times - other civil wars, other death squads, other countries in turmoil, other groups of disappeared, other counts of mounting bodies every morning - but it is particular.

Joan Didion went there, for what seems to be about two weeks in February, with her husband John Gregory Dunne (who is never named here, but referenced). She talked with government officials and NGO people, intellectuals and other reporters - anyone she could talk to, it seems. She traveled as much as she could, as much as was safe: that doesn't seem to have been that much. El Salvador is a small country - Didion pointedly notes that it's smaller than several counties in her native California - but it was war-torn and full of armed men in 1982, and bodies appeared in specific, almost ritual spots nearly every morning.

She does not give us much of the geopolitical background: she does get into the sea of acronyms of political parties-cum-paramilitaries, but it's confusing and unclear, I think on purpose, like hearing the complicated story of some other family's messy feuds. The US was trying to impose peace, but not quite succeeding. Right-wing death squads were very active, though most of the deaths they caused were "officially" unsolved. If I'm reading between the lines, the left-wing rebels were responsible for far fewer deaths, but maybe not for lack of trying.

It was the kind of place and the kind of time where a lot of things were generally assumed but not said officially, where impressions and news reports were more important than actual facts, since the actual facts were suppressed or not known or considered unimportant or just neglected. That kind of place leads to conspiracies - some of them theories, many of them real.

Didion was the right kind of writer for a place and a time like that. She was always concerned with both what really is true (but isn't said) and what is presented for public consumption (and is carefully constructed out of a thin scaffolding of truth garlanded by lies and fancy). El Savador in 1982 was mostly image, with a substance avoided and hidden and manipulated. This is a good, though harrowing, look at what that was like, and may be a useful reference for other countries and other times that are in their own civil wars, or may be pushed into them.

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