Monday, December 31, 2007

Joan Didion's Salvador

(This was the fifth book I read for the Nonfiction Five challenge. The more astute among you may be wondering what happened to the fourth book. Never fear: a post on The Math Gene will be coming in January. I just happened to be more in the mood to post on this one.)

I was a teenager in the early 1980s, preoccupied with my unrequited loves of the moment and counting down the days till I could go to college and get out of the house where I was treated so unfairly (because, you know, my parents had the audacity to want to know where I was at 11:30 p.m.). I was vaguely aware of the fact that a bloody war was being fought in a place called El Salvador (somewhere south of us in that area of the world that didn’t seem to exist if my social studies textbooks were any indication. Apparently, it’s still a country that ranks right up there in the memories of more “enlightened” areas of the world. We subscribe to The Economist and recently received its 2008 edition of Pocket World Figures. I decided to look up El Salvador. Guess what. It isn’t there. Neither is Guatemala. These countries must not be part of our world. Maybe one needs a subtle knife to reach them). I had heard of the Freedom Fighters but would have been far more interested in them had they been a New Age band or something during that period of my life.

Meanwhile, as I was busy writing “This is boring” in as many different “artsy” ways as possible all over my Spanish notebook, Joan Didion was in El Salvador, during the height of this bloody civil war. She was immersed in a place that was daily demonstrating how amazing the human capacity for denial actually is, daily demonstrating what folly it is for Americans to go marching arrogantly onto foreign soil, thinking we can possibly understand the people who are living there, thinking that if they just adopt our ways of being (while scratching our backs a little, because, you know, there’s no point unless we can benefit somehow), all will be well with their world. It is also a place where Didion took her own notebook to a shopping center to jot down her observations about such things as the muzak playing (“American Pie”), the shoppers buying beach towels with North American slogans on them, and fashionably-dressed young mothers juxtaposed with guards who were checking everyone for weapons as they walked through the doors of the supermarket. It is a country where Didion had been frightened one evening while eating at a restaurant near the Mexican embassy and noted, “I did not forget the sensation of having been in a single instant demoralized, undone, humiliated by fear, which is what I meant when I said that I came to understand in El Salvador the mechanism of Terror.” (Didion, Joan. Salvador. New York: Vintage International, p. 26).

I was first smitten with Didion when I was in college. We read A Book of Common Prayer for my literature of the Americas course (a great class, incidentally, in which I was introduced to Gabriel Garcia Marquez whom Didion quotes a few times in this book as she comes to understand him as a social realist. I know of no other American who has read Garcia Marquez who would refer to him as such, but that’s just another testimony to the ways her time in El Salvador affected her). As was typical when I was in college, I loved her book but was too busy keeping up with all my other assignments to read anything else by her. Twenty years later, I rediscovered her when my former boss made his own discovery and began lending (and then giving) me her books. I fell in love with her all over again. She’s a stark writer, never mincing words, with a beautiful and brilliant sense of the ironic. She’ll make you laugh and then sock you in the solar plexus just to make sure you’re really paying attention to the devastating state of all of which she so desperately writes. Then she will challenge you to think. Really, really hard. About things you’ve never once considered, or at least, not considered in that way, the way to which only she could have led you.

I was expecting her note-taking in the shopping center to result in some of her signature comments with ironic twists. Instead, I got this:

This was a shopping center that embodied the future for which El Salvador was presumably being saved, and I wrote it down dutifully, this being the kind of “color” I knew how to interpret, the kind of inductive irony, the detail that was supposed to illuminate the story. As I wrote it down I realized that I was no longer much interested in this kind of irony, that this was a story that would not be illuminated by such details, that this was a story that would perhaps not be illuminated at all, that this was perhaps even less a story than a true noche obscura. As I waited to cross back over the Boulevard de los Heroes to the Camino Real [her hotel] I noticed soldiers herding a young civilian into a van, their guns at the boy’s back, and I walked straight ahead, not wanting to see anything at all. (p. 36)

It’s a testament to the horrors of the place that someone like Didion is left speechless, so to speak (but hasn’t she captured the nightmarish reality beautifully here?). Nonetheless, through her shocked senses, she remembers she has a book to write, and she plods on. Despite her horror, her keen eye for the ironic does not go into hiding, but instead reveals itself time and again. For instance, she seems almost eager to tell us that during the big earthquake in June of 1982, the one building that suffers severe damage is one that was specifically designed to withstand such an earthquake: the American embassy. She then points out that other buildings like the Hotel Camino Real

…which would appear to have been thrown together in the insouciant tradition of most tropical construction, did a considerable amount of rolling (I recall crouching under a door frame in my room on the seventh floor and watching, through the window, the San Salvador volcano appear to rock from left to right), but when the wrenching stopped and candles were found and everyone got downstairs nothing was broken, not even the glasses behind the bar. (pp. 59-60)

This, of course, is also a metaphor that is not lost on her.

If you’ve never read Joan Didion but have The Year of Magical Thinking on your TBR list/pile as your starting point, please don’t start there. My fear is that it’s the main work for which she is going to be remembered. It’s a book worthy in its own right, a beautiful classic, but it isn’t the best starting point for classic Didion. If you want a real taste of Joan Didion, want to understand how she writes when she’s not in the throes of magical thinking, start with this one. It’s a short little piece that will rock your world. Then you can move onto such joys (a word, illogically, that is both appropriate and inappropriate here, but that’s Didion for you) as Political Fictions, A Book of Common Prayer, and yes, The Year of Magical Thinking.

While you’re busy sampling your first morsels, I’ll be sitting here wishing Didion were stationed elsewhere in the world, working on a short little piece entitled Iraq. I know that’s an awful lot to ask of a 73-year-old who’s recently lost her beloved husband and daughter. However, I’m absolutely positive she’s up to the task and that nobody could do a better job.


Anonymous said...

I came late to this post so I hope you catch this comment. Dan introduced me to Joan Didion's beautiful economy with words early in our marriage (actually when we were dating). We joke that she's the one woman I have reason to worry about Dan leaving me for. (She and Mary Ann Prather from seventh grade). linser

Emily Barton said...

Linser, yes, I think I remember your saying to me that Didion was your one true threat (and knowing Dan, he's probably edited something she wrote or had dinner with her or something, right?).