Joan Didion Immerses Herself Into The Maelstrom

In 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 mind upon meeting her is how physically ill-suited she seems, at first glance, to encounter such dark forces. For Joan Didion is not simply diminutive but somehow, despite her strong-looking hands and her intense, steady blue eyes, profoundly fragile — a pale, thin, gentle wisp of a woman, with chestnut hair and a soft western twang. She could seemingly be blown clear across the room by a strong breeze … the fact that she has chosen to immerse herself into the maelstrom of El Salvador only makes her accomplishment all the more remarkable and compelling.


MARTIN TORGOFF: Why did you write the kind of book you did? You obviously decided to concentrate on reporting about the “texture” of life in El Salvador, what it’s like to live in that environment; but at the same time, you seem to have eschewed what people in the State Department might call “the big picture,” i.e. the Russians, the Cubans, the Nicaraguans, the question of geopolitics.

JOAN DIDION: Every once in a while, it filters into the writing, but no, I didn’t want to concentrate on that. I was aware of what I was doing: I didn’t think that “the big picture” was necessary because I don’t think we understand what it is. And so many people have been telling us what “the big picture” is all too often; I wasn’t agreeing with what they were portraying, I wanted my impressions of things to speak for themselves.

TORGOFF: When you were down there, did you find your movement restricted by the situation?

DIDION: No, not really; we could go anywhere. There were always roadblocks, and if you didn’t have the right papers, things could have always ended badly. We were very careful to carry our papers from the Ministry of Defense identifying us as members of the press. There were days when we’d have to stop because the rebels would periodically burn cars and trucks on the roads.

TORGOFF: Was it just you and your husband traveling? Did you have a guide?

DIDION: We didn’t have a guide; we just rented a car and went out. Sometimes we went out with other reporters. We tried to get around as best as we could.

TORGOFF: You use the word “disappeared” in the book, describing its usage down there: someone is “disappeared” when they are abducted and most of those “disappeared” are tortured, killed and mutilated. Didn’t it seem plausible that it could have happened to both of you?

DIDION: We thought it wasn’t going to happen because someone always knew where we were when we were going out … But, in hindsight, I realize that it doesn’t really make much difference if someone knows where you are, does it? When you’re actually there, you try to be very careful but it doesn’t pay to think about it too much; you’re there to do a job and you can’t let the fear stop you from making your rounds. But, you’re always aware of it. I remember the first night we were there, we were with a bunch of reporters and the first thing I noticed was that everyone sits facing the door.

TORGOFF: You saw a lot of grisly things down there—the body pits, the morgue. We can read about these things in the paper, perhaps even see it on television, but the reality still seems remote. Does having seen those things alter your perceptions of things?

DIDION: Yes, when we first came back last summer from El Salvador, I remember landing in New York; I found it astonishing, outside the terminal these two cabdrivers were having an argument, a fight… they were shouting at each other, nothing more. But after El Salvador, I was so shocked that I wanted to run and hide, just because that for this very short period of time—two weeks—I’d been in a situation where those sort of raised voices could have meant death. It was deeply shocking people talk about the violence of New York. It’s a luxury here.

TORGOFF: You evoke the element of incomprehension in the book—you use the word “untranslatable.” Does that mean we, for instance, as Americans, with our values and perspectives cannot really perceive what’s happening down there because it’s not within our frame of reference?

DIDION: I don’t think it’s possible to get it unless you’re there. For example, we keep waiting for the trial of the Guardsman for the killing of four American nuns. What I’m really saying is that it’s as inconceivable for the Guardsmen to be brought to justice down there, as it seems inconceivable up here for them not to be. Things are really bad down there and the minute somebody tries to tell you about them, they put it into a rational framework. When I say that they rationalize, I mean that just the act of telling it makes it seem more rational. There’s no way to actually tell it. When, for example, something happens down there, a lot of it turns up in the embassy reporting; it looks more rational in a cable to the State Department than it actually is. And then when a State Department spokesman translates it, he rationalizes it one step further. And by the time it reaches us here, it’s entirely transformed; it seems rational when it’s not.

TORGOFF: I wonder how that applies to our opinions, whether you’re a liberal Democrat or a conservative Republican. If the reality is divorced from our experience as a people, is it reasonable to expect to be able to impose any of our institutions or ideals on the situation? What I’m getting at is this: If the situation is inherently “untranslatable” then how can we possibly know what to do?

DIDION: I don’t think we can with any certainty now. It’s unrealistic to expect to export our values, our political abstracts. The abstracts that we live by don’t even apply. We’re seriously deluding ourselves by our present course. It has no possibility for a good outcome; it’s against our interests. We’re defeating our best interests there.

TORGOFF: What are our own best interests there, as you perceive them?

DIDION: Our best long-term interests are to have friends in our own hemisphere, to have the respect and support of other countries. What we seem to be doing is driving them away, one by one, isolating ourselves. We, in effect, are making ourselves a Fortress America—it’s not the Soviets doing it—it’s us. If you assume that the Soviet Union wants us isolated in our own hemisphere, wants us in effect to become a lone fortress, we are helping them in every possible way. That’s what I mean by self-defeating.

TORGOFF: Is what’s happening in El Salvador primarily a class conflict between the haves and the have-nots?

DIDION: I see it more as a conflict within a class. Some people see it as a popular revolution—it has elements of that, but I don’t think it was, originally. There’s a conflict among people who are already entitled—the haves; the traditional oligarchy and the sub-class of professionals, army officers, and the businessmen, who aren’t necessarily owners of vast wealth or property.

TORGOFF: In other words, there’s a conflict within the elite of the society, between those who are trying to call the shots?

DIDION: Trying to call the shots … and one of their points of conflict is how to deal with those at the bottom. I can’t get much more specific than that; I don’t go into it in the book—somebody should go into it, however. It’s a conflict between those who have power and those who want it, or have less power, or are temporarily out of power. That’s what began the revolution in Nicaragua;: there were people who were powerful families, but who weren’t the Somozas … It became a popular revolution later.

TORGOFF: Why do you think that the guerillas, being outnumbered and outgunned, do so well against the army in El Salvador?

DIDION: Militarily? Well, I’m no expert, but the United States seems to find a great deal to be desired in the morale and tactics of the Salvadoran army. They keep sending these three battalions hurtling across the country like ping-pong balls; the guerillas just fade back into the hills and disappear. And then these three battalions just rush off someplace else and the guerillas come back out.


“I’m really tired of this angst business. It seems to me I’m as lively and cheerful as the next person. I laugh, I smile… but I write down what I see. There have been reviews of Salvador that have said I found it so depressing because I find everything so depressing. I would like to know how they would find it?” —Joan Didion


TORGOFF: Isn’t it true that the average Salvadoran soldier, the grunt who has to go slogging off into the bush, is from the same class as the guerillas?

DIDION: Yes, they have no interest in the war; they couldn’t possibly. It’s chance: If you’re of the right age and you’re picked up in an army sweep, you’re in the army; if they miss you and the guerillas come to your town, then you can just as easily be a guerilla. There have been documented instances of army officers selling weapons and supplies to the guerillas­—it’s very murky. But there certainly isn’t high morale in the Salvadoran army.

TORGOFF: One hears a good deal about the terror tactics of the government security forces, of course. Are the guerillas guilty of the same terror? For instance, in Vietnam, the Viet Cong were known to enter a village, round up the boys and tell them that if they didn’t join up  they’d blow their fathers’ brains out…

DIDION: Certainly, the guerillas do a lot of terrorism—I don’t know if they do that, however—I really don’t know. A lot of people have reported about their public relations, however, which appears to be quite effective—taking the people they capture and feeding them well, turning them lose. It’s very demoralizing to the army.

TORGOFF: If the government of El Salvador gets the military aid it wants, what do you see happening?

DIDION: Business as usual. It would be like supporting a bankrupt business buying little amounts of time so that nobody has to become the weapon who “lost” El Salvador.

TORGOFF: Now look at the reverse angle: if we cut off aid, will the guerillas “shoot their way into power,” to put it in the words of Secretary of State Schultz?

DIDION: It’s really hard to say… I presume what would happen would be that the Right would have to revert to shooting everybody in the country and trying to solve the problem that way… what would happen if we cut off aid? Maybe some of the money that left El Salvador in 1979, when the rich families left for Miami, might come back. Some $2 billion was taken out of the country that year.

TORGOFF: So if we stopped the aid, we would become powerless, in effect, to influence the course of events there?

DIDION: But we’re giving the money and we’re powerless to influence the course of events now. I think we should encourage a negotiated solution, negotiated regionally with countries like Mexico and Venezuela participating, rather than seeking an armed solution.

TORGOFF: If there are serious negotiations of elections in which the Left agrees to participate, do you think that the people in power in El Salvador would ever actually share it with the Left? Or, for that matter, would they share it with the center—if there is a center?

DIDION: I don’t think they would ever share it with the Left; they haven’t even been willing to share it with the center. They’ve been systematically killing off the Christian Democrats… the Right hasn’t been willing to share power with anybody in El Salvador. Period.

TORGOFF: As far as other non-fiction you’ve done over the years, was this a particularly difficult book to write?

DIDION: No, it was easier. Basically, I started out to write an article, or a series of articles, and it kept getting longer. It was easier to write than all of the things I’ve written because I was very clear about what I saw, what I thought. I just set out to put it down without any embellishments or tricks.

TORGOFF: More and more novelists seem to be seizing on Central American settings for their own purposes. I’m thinking of your novel, “A Book of Common Prayer,” Robert Stone’s “A Flag For Sunrise,” and Paul Theroux’s “The Mosquito Coast.” What is there about the place that attracts the imagination of the American novelist?

DIDION: It’s an interesting question. It reminds me of that woman last night [On the previous night, Didion gave a talk on El Salvador at the Overseas Press Club in New York]. There was an Italian journalist who’d been to El Salvador who raised a point about American reporters there. She used the phrase “moral ambiguity” and said that the American reporters seemed to be getting something “out of it.” What she was sort of getting at, I think, was that Americans have a very peculiar relationship to Central America. We have a history in Central America—it hasn’t really been a history we should be applauded for. It’s been a rather mysterious chapter for us. It’s been kind of a frontier for us; a lot of Americans have gone down there, for many different reasons. It makes me think of this classic first line in a bad novel: “I came up from Central America traveling fast…”

TORGOFF: When you get right down to it, would you say that they just don’t like the gringos down there?

DIDION: That’s exactly right: The Right in El Salvador doesn’t like us at all. They don’t want any strings attached to our money; they resent us trying to tell them what to do. I don’t know how the Left feels about us. Should the Left prevail, however, we’re more or less guaranteeing, by our support of the Right, a government hostile to us, which is, of course, what happened in Nicaragua.

TORGOFF: So it’s a no-win situation: we’re damned if we do, and damned if we don’t?

DIDION: That’s right.

TORGOFF: I want to read you the first sentence of a review of Salvador in The Daily News. I thought you might find it amusing, knowing your reputation for being, shall we say, saturnine. It’s by a fellow named David Hinckley—no relation, I presume to the presidential assailant: “Joan Didion is a writer who would find something melancholy in the Resurrection…”

DIDION: [laughs] Oh, no! Well, I’m so tired of that stuff—I’m really tired of this angst business. It seems to me I’m as lively and cheerful as the next person. I laugh, I smile… but I write down what I see. There have been reviews of Salvador that have said I found it so depressing because I find everything so depressing. I would like to know how they would find it? After all, what do they think is down there?