"Terror is the given of the place." The place is El Salvador in 1982, at the ghastly height of its civil war. The writer is Joan Didion, who delivers an anatomy of that country's particular brand of terror–its mechanisms, rationales, and intimate relation to United States foreign policy.As ash travels from battlefields to body dumps, interviews a puppet president, and considers the distinctly Salvadoran grammar of the verb "to disappear," Didion gives us a book that is germane to any country in which bloodshed has become a standard tool of politics.
Salvador is not a factual history of the war in 1982. It is, however, the war seen through the eyes of a journalist with limited time and resources in country. Bias is inherit in this kind of journalism and time and events told second hand become as fluid as the eye witness accounts. Didion tries to elevate these problems by sprinkling quotes and statements taken from official and vetted sources related to story is she is conveying. It's a one-sided truth, but I have not doubt that it is the truth to Didion. So while it's not a scholarly account of the events taking place in El Salvador in 1982, it is an invaluable piece that gives voice to the experiences and horrific events that shaped the lives of Salvadorans for over a decade.
Advice for other writers: Do not attempt to write like Didion unless your name is Didion. She does things with her sentence structure I didn't think was possible. At no point in my wildest imagination would paragraph sized sentence featuring a colon, a semi-colon, eight commas, and two sets of parentheses come off as anything but a clunky mess. Yet Didion's prose is so smooth and her phrasing so good that I hardly ever took notice of her peculiar style. She spews words onto the page and it comes out as a coherent, well constructed thought. She's a remarkable talent.
These many years later, the politics don't seem to matter as much anymore, but that litany--the description of one horrific act after another--seems only to prove that inhumanity knows no decade.
sides in this conflict were slaughtering people, there were more than two sides, it was way more complicated than good guy vs. bad guy. (Yeah, I'm a slow learner.)
It was intriguing to see Didion's writing applied to such a topic as Salvador and the ugliness that was happening. I especially appreciated the way she compared Salvadoran use of language to more linear U.S. language use, especially in the use of numbers. She talked about Salvadoran use as being more generally descriptive of their world beyond numbers and into deeper meaning and how this was misunderstood by Americans. It reminded me of a ten year old client who kept insisting there were hundreds of empty beer bottles at his dad's house. His mom was upset and wanted him to be more specific because he was going to have to testify in court. He was an exceptionally bright child so she could not understand nor tolerate his exaggeration. She finally got it tho - he wasn't telling her how many bottles there were. He was telling her how scared and overwhelmed he felt. Didion talks about this difficulty describing Salvador in terms many of us understand, that she found herself without the words.
It's an interesting and quick read at only 100 pages. I had my first Salvadoran student in the early 2000s and wish I could have had more time with him. I'd like current information on it if anyone has any suggestions for sources.
The reporting and cool analysis is vintage Didion and therefore magnificent. The Central American policy is a bit too wonky (and a bit too stuck in 1982) to be all that readable or interesting. But still, this book is fast reading but potent, like a gulp of firm scotch that builds in your throat to a slow, angry boil.
Very worth it.
“Terror is the given of the place” and Didion tries to illustrate this with a montage of incidents and anecdotes which include the humour of the absurd, as you don’t want to
Didion’s book is not only about the impact of the terror upon her and her thinking, but also the way in which the American military and diplomatic presence had to view the situation in order to justify their involvement in assisting the government. She is not opining whether the US presence in El Salvador is right or wrong, just trying to present her impressions and the record of her conversations from a two week visit.
“...nothing came of the day but overheard rumors, indefinite observations, fragments of information that might or might not fit into a pattern we did not perceive.”