Sunday, October 03, 2010

Salvador (1983)

Though this comes in at just a little over a hundred pages—less than that in the Everyman's edition—it still stands as one of Joan Didion's best nonfiction works. Taking on the task for the "New York Review of Books" of examining Reagan administration efforts in El Salvador in the early '80s, she uncovers a whole lot of ick when she turns over the rock of that particular foreign policy. Reporting from the ground (she was there during the early summer of 1982), she is uniquely suited and in particularly good position to cover the dread and horrors and various hallucinatory stresses produced by a war zone, even if it's the kind of simmering, just barely restrained war zone she encounters in that small Latin American country, about the size of Massachusetts, which suddenly loomed so large for U.S. right-wingers at the time. I should say rather especially if those are the conditions. Didion bravely tries to pick apart what the conflict is about, even as dozens of people are dying gruesome deaths every day all around her, their bodies turning up mutilated on the sides of roads and piled in mountain cul de sacs, eventually brought to overworked morgues for the frustrating and ultimately impossible work of identification and disposal. It's not safe anywhere after dark and in many places it's never safe at all, but she does what she can. She listens carefully to the public statements, interviews all the principals who will sit for her, and attempts to fit it all into the authoritative histories she has lugged along with her. But as with Vietnam—and it's no coincidence that the best companion book for this is surely Michael Herr's Dispatches—there's little sense to be made of it. It starts from the fever swamps of right-wing abstracted thought, proceeds through various shadings of the greed of war profiteers and the otherwise generally power mad, and concludes with the some of the most powerless people on the planet systematically slaughtered willy-nilly to further the aims of ... something. In the argot (down the road), "Mistakes were made." Didion, of course, who famously has no patience for such lunacy, in this case has little time for it either. She's too busy trying to keep herself alive and maintain relative sanity, and the hell with poise, as she shuttles about this menacing jungle, continually trying to find ways to make the pieces fit together. They don't, and she penetrates to that brilliantly. In the end perhaps the best she can do is headnote it with a lengthy passage from Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. When that short novel stands in as your moral compass, you know there's going to be trouble.

In case it's not at the library. (Everyman's)

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