June of 1982, Joan Didion travelled to El Salvador with her husband, John Gregory Dunne, to report on the country for The New York Review of Books. The results of that trip appeared as three articles, and were published in book form last month by Simon and Schuster. To readers familiar with the work of this highly acclaimed essayist, critic, reporter, novelist, and scenarist, the trip made a great deal of sense; the region had obviously been on her mind for some time. A Book of Common Prayer, her novel published in 1978, prophetically depicted the downfall of a Somoza-like regime in the imaginary Central American nation of Boa Grande, which bore a startling resemblance to Nicaragua. Moreover, it seemed reasonable to assume that if any writer could get a handle on El Salvador—caught, as it is, in the throes of a savage civil war, as the newly-unleashed anti-Sandinist insurgency in Nicaragua causes tensions in the region to mount, at a time when the political atmosphere of the United States is charged by issues of human rights violations by the Salvadorian Right and the question of increased U.S. military aid — it would be Joan Didion.
After reading the book, one thing became searing clear: What has always informed Didion’s non-fiction in the past and distinguished Slouching Toward Bethlehem and The White Album as classics — a sensitivity that is viscerally sensitive, vulnerable yet always tough-minded, an unerringly keen eye for detail and irony, and a prose style of singular brilliance—only makes Salvador that much more devastating. Perhaps the most telling phrases she uses in the book to describe her impressions are those like “a prolonged amnesiac fugue” and “a true noche obscura”— in other words, there is no “handle” in El Salvador; there is mainly the ambition for power — (“Don’t say this, but, there are no issues here,” she is told by a high placed Salvadoran. “There are only ambitions.”) — obfuscated by the rhetoric of “el problema,” “la situacion,” “la verdad,” “la solucion.” Mostly there is “the exact mechanism of terror” she comes to understand so well; there are El Playon and Puerta del Diablo, where the mutilated bodies of the “desaparecidos” are dumped by the death squads, and the kind of “practical information” she imparts at the outset of the book:
In El Salvador, one learns that the vultures go first for the soft tissue, for the eyes, the exposed genitalia, the open mouth. One learns that an open mouth can be used to make a specific point, can be stuffed with something emblematic; stuffed, say, with a penis, or, if the point has to do with land title, stuffed with some of the dirt in question.
“Terror is the given of the place,” she tells us, terror and death are the true tangibles in El Salvador — the rest is rhetoric, illusion. Seated across from her in a suite at The Carlyle, what comes immediately to