I love Joan Didion’s writing, specifically her nonfiction. I’d been reading through her work chronologically, but when I reached Salvador, I hesitated. I thought it would be more overtly political than her two previous collections of essays. I feared I wouldn’t be able to grasp the situation fully, having no background in the history of El Salvador. I shouldn’t have worried. Didion captured the mood and the events in a way that I didn’t feel lost or overwhelmed by its history.
In June of 1982, Didion visited El Salvador with her husband with plans to report on the current situation. The result is a small book (I read it in a day) titled Salvador, which gives her impressions of the time she spent there.
The most noticeable aspect being that bodies of the dead are all over the country: “The dead and pieces of the dead turn up in El Salvador everywhere, every day, as taken for granted as in a nightmare, or a horror movie.” There are scrapbooks at municipal buildings filled with photos of the dead, many without recognizable facial features or even faces at all, due to disfigurement or scavengers (“Vultures of course suggest the presence of a body.”)
This terror of the place has a definite effect on her (as I’d imagine it would anyone.) Visiting the body dumps, which “are seen in El Salvador as a kind of visitor’s must-do, difficult but worth the detour,” Didion witnesses a man teaching a woman to drive and afterward she wonders, “why a man and a woman might choose a well-known body dump for a driving lesson. This was one of a number of occasions […] on which I came to understand, in a way I had not understood before, the exact mechanism of terror.” Later, after a dinner with the grandson of General Martinez, the artist Victor Barriere, she observes “that this was the first time in my life that I had been in the presence of obvious ‘material’ and felt no professional exhilaration at all, only personal dread.”
There’s much more than I’ve mentioned, and although it’s a light book (108 pages), the contents are anything but. One last, long-ish quote (one you may not want to read while eating):
There is a special kind of practical information that the visitor to El Salvador acquires immediately, the way visitors to other places acquire information about currency rates, the hours for the museums. In El Salvador, one learns that vultures go first for the soft tissue, for the eyes, for 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. One learns that hair deteriorates less rapidly than flesh, that a skull surrounded by a perfect corona of hair is a not uncommon sight in the body dumps.