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It would be false to say that I was ever truly familiar with the situation in El Salvador at any time, not truly, and what makes Didion's Salvador such an extraordinary essay is that it so thoroughly and eloquently elucidates a time and place, but does so with specifics that feel as endemic to any political crisis now, or any 100 years ago. In her first chapter, she describes her experience in El Salvador by saying "I came to understand, in a way I had not understood before, the exact mechanism of terror." Salvador is an extraordinarily precise evocation of El Salvador in 1982, of the failure of Reagan's policies there, but what makes it still relevant is exactly that evocation of mechanics, of the bodies at the morgue that add up but don't amount to a story, of the shudder of fear at the sight of headlights in a dark dining room, of the shifting game of verbiage that describes progress or failure or civil wars or assassinations. What I mean is that Salvador will move and feel familiar to anyone, and that, at the point she describes the particular failing of America that allows us to approach this conflict as "something of the familiar ineffable, as if it were taking place not in El Salvador but in a mirage of El Salvador," it will seem the most reasoned, obvious, and unsettling conclusion about national and international conflicts.
Joan Didion gleaned the essential reality of El Salvadoran society in the 1980's, after only a short stay in the country. I believe she was there as a journalist or correspondent, who based her stark account on conversations with citizens, diplomats, and military personnel, as well as her own keen eye. She showed an uncanny gift for pinpointing the elemental truth behind every minor detail. For example, she noticed that all the male folkloric dancers at a village festival were either elderly men or young boys and that the awkward steps of their dance seemed tentative and confused. This dramatized both the Civil War's near-elimination of men in their prime and the paralysis of a society lost in violence. Every anecdote is vivid and each spare sentence convinces us of the utter tragedy and senseless waste of El Salvador's Civil War. Corruption, denial and passivity caused incomprehensible human suffering, while apparently intentional ignorance granted a continuous flow of military aid from the U.S.A., despite the blatant, savage inhumanity of the Salvadoran army and the National Guard. Even Didion's mention of U.S. embassy staff language underlines their imperviousness: they nicknamed the weekly report of murdered Salvadoran citizens, "the grim-gram." In her short volume, Joan Didion provides an unforgettable glimpse of a society mired in brutality, under the blind veil of double-speak from armies and congresses on both sides of the border. If we cling to the belief that suffering has a purpose, then the graceful witness of this book will help prevent future United States blunders in foreign policy.
While this book was interesting, it was too round about in how it was written. At the end of reading it I was not sure what point the author was trying to make about El Salvador. I came away from it thinking that El Salvador is a very messed up country I would never want to visit, but I doubt that was the message the author was trying to send away.