Joan Didion's "Salvador" delves into the heart of darkness

Though it was first published 30 years ago, Didion's account of the war in El Salvador still feels as urgent today

Published March 14, 2013 7:00PM (EDT)

                                                                               (Shutterstock/Salon/Benjamin Wheelock)
(Shutterstock/Salon/Benjamin Wheelock)

Over the last few years, I’ve been sent 400 to 500 review copies of books and audiobooks. I haven’t read them all, although I have tried to read at least a handful of pages of all of them, or listen to at least the first couple of minutes. Most of them have offered at least some pleasures to reward the time, and I’m happy in general that we live in a world where there is a place even for books and audiobooks that appeal to the narrowest of audiences.

The most striking thing about all this reading  and listening is how few of these books and audiobooks have taken up any kind of long-term residence in my mind and in my life – how few have troubled me so that I think about them months and years after I thought I had finished my time with them, and how few have brought pleasure or solace of the sort that cause me to want to reread them.

If I tried to categorize what it is that gives these books their special staying power, the first thing I might do is make a list of the qualities that — surprisingly — aren’t sources of this power. It’s not the subject or the content, although subject and content that is inherently interesting or dramatic can go a long way toward helping a book be interesting or dramatic.  It’s not timeliness, although I’m always happy to spend time with a book that has something to say to the present moment. And it’s not the events the book offers, although I’m drawn to a book that offers a series of interesting events.

So what is it that makes a book or an audiobook a companion for longer than the time it takes to read or listen? I think there are two possibilities: The first is that the book makes the reader feel something deeply by showing something true that the reader already might have known in a vague and general way but for which the reader never before had the right language to explain it or a fit set of images to stand in for it or the well-chosen moment to serve as a metaphor for it. The second is that the book interrogates its subject so intelligently that the reader’s own intellect is expanded by the writer’s questions and the way the writer works through them.

The preceding four paragraphs are brought to you by an audiobooks columnist who must explain why Joan Didion’s “Salvador” — which was originally published 30 years ago, about a now-past, then very-present crisis in a tiny Central American country — has the ability to feel immediately relevant to a new reader whose memory of its context is more the kind of memory that arises from having read books about history than one that arises from having been old enough in 1983 to understand the meaning of phrases such as death squad, or body count, or mechanism of terror.

Didion opens with a paragraph-long epigraph from Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness,” which begins with “All Europe contributed to the making of Kurtz,” and ends with a flourish that could until its last line be mistaken for a Joan Didion line if it did not so famously belong to Conrad: “This was the unbounded power of eloquence—of words—of burning noble words. There were no practical hints to interrupt the magic current of phrases, unless a kind of note at the foot of the last page, scrawled evidently much later, in an unsteady hand, may be regarded as the exposition of a method. It was very simple, and at the end of that moving appeal to every altruistic sentiment it blazed at you, luminous and terrifying, like a flash of lightning in a serene sky: ‘Exterminate all the brutes!’”

“Heart of Darkness” was first published in serial form in Blackwood’s Magazine in 1899, and yet if one offers the lines Didion provides absent Conrad’s context (the 19th century, in the vicinity of the Congo River, as narrated from  a steamboat anchored on the River Thames), it begins to describe Didion’s ostensible subject, El Salvador, around a hundred years later.

I say "ostensible subject" because Didion knows that if one examines human behavior closely enough, in a specific time and place in which people and powers are under great pressure, the things that are revealed about human beings are the same kinds of things that are always revealed about human beings. When immigration “is negotiated in a thicket of automatic weapons,” then: “The only logic is that of acquiescence.”

And when, in the concluding sentence of “Salvador,” at the moment of Didion’s completion deadline, the offices of every major American press agency in the capital of El Salvador are raided by national police carrying submachine guns, 15 members of the political opposition are disappeared, an American official declares that these disappearances “had not been conducted under Salvadoran government orders,” and the Salvadoran defense ministry announces that eight of the 15 disappeared are in their custody, the American State Department announces that the Reagan administration believes that it has “’turned the corner’ in its campaign for political stability in Central America.”

In fine strokes specific to a time and place now seldom considered, Didion has offered a metaphor for the last 68 years of American foreign policy, but the greater tragedy is that what she’s mostly offering isn’t a metaphor at all, but a catalog of real terror and real death in a place that isn’t given the dignity of a full accounting of the real terror and the real death that it is experiencing, but which is, instead, offered up as a representative example of whatever it is that those in power want to say about the ways in which they are exercising their power, whether or not there is a correlation between the facts on the ground and the way they are being interpreted and offered to the audience, which is, I suppose, the American people.

Didion’s subject, in other words, is El Salvador, but her subject is also the uses of El Salvador, which makes her subject the American government, which uses El Salvador, which makes her subject the language the American government uses to make use of El Salvador, which makes her subject the ways in which language distorts atrocity, which makes her subject the ways in which atrocity can be useful, which makes her subject the ways in which governments fail human beings, which makes her subject the ways in which the making of big subjects fails individuals who are caught in atrocity, which makes her subject all of us, because we are all complicit in a past and a future in which whichever group to which we belong makes use for whatever reason of whichever group to which we don’t belong, and also how we tell ourselves the stories we tell ourselves so we can paper over the things we don’t want to see, and justify the things that bring us the ends we think we want, and avoid resisting things that are done in our name that we would rather not know because it is more comfortable, almost always, to not know, or to believe we know things about which, if we really knew them, we’d either have to do something with that knowledge or live with the knowledge that we have done nothing with that knowledge, all of which is another way of saying:

“Salvador” will trouble you and take up a long-term residence in your mind and your life, and, like so much of Joan Didion’s work, it has never been more timely.

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By Kyle Minor

Kyle Minor is the author of "In the Devil’s Territory," a collection of stories and novellas, and the winner of the 2012 Iowa Review Prize for Short Fiction. His second collection of stories, "Praying Drunk," will be published in February 2014.

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