An army brat who started off at Vogue magazine, she was able to live in a Hollywood mansion (albeit a somewhat dilapidated one) while writing pieces for Esquire and The New York Times which would fuel endless conversations and debates, becoming as notable as her writing. Unthinkable in this day and age, but there has always been something of a disconnect between her persona and how others perceive her.
Casey Barrett once wrote that:
…most…targets don’t grasp their own hypocrisies. How many of those smug coastal elites are aware that one of their living saints, Joan Didion, was a Goldwater Republican; a hater of hippies and Beats; a writer who penned scathing opinions of feminism in the 1970s? When you see those self-satisfied sorts toting their Joan Didion tote bags, which were ubiquitous for a while around Union Square, you wonder who they’re identifying with? Is it Joan Didion, the acerbic social critic, or Joan Didion, the cool ass ice queen, smoking her cigarette with that level gaze?
Regardless, one cannot deny the influence she has had as a writer (with Bret Easton Ellis citing her as an influence) and, with the recent documentary on her life, the time is ripe to reappraise one of her lesser cited works.
Originating as two articles from the New York Review of Books, Salvador is a document of the two weeks spent by Didion and her husband in El Salvador in 1982. Going there as an internationally renowned journalist meant that she would experience the more official side of things, but she was always aware of the contradictions and troubles lying underneath the façade. Take this segment as an example.
I have thought about this lunch a great deal. The wine was chilled and poured into crystal glasses. The fish was served on porcelain plates that bore the American eagle. The sheep dog and the crystal and the American eagle together had on me a certain anesthetic effect, temporarily deadening the receptivity to the sinister that afflicts everyone in Salvador, and I experienced for a moment the official American delusion, the illusion of plausibility, the sense that the American undertaking in El Salvador might turn out to be, from the right angle, in the right light, just another difficult but possible mission in another troubled but possible country.
Another, more famous, example, is her writing about visiting a shopping centre:
As I waited to cross back over the Boulevard de los Heroes to the Camino Real 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.
A simple, but stinging paragraph, as she had learnt that her status and nationality did not matter in El Salvador. It’s a commentary not only on herself, but American involvement in the country itself.
When it was originally published, Paul Theroux (whose essay on the region’s university is quoted by Didion) described it as an excellent account of being nervous, but a poor one about El Salvador. While there is definitely truth in what he says, one can’t help but think that he was looking for observation with a more insightful, clinical eye, whereas Didion was viewing the place as an outsider (in the same way, some argue, that she views California and America in general). In that regard, Theroux misses the point somewhat.
Ultimately, it’s a book about paranoia and contradiction among someone who openly acknowledges her status as an observer. The feeling that anything could happen at any moment, and the actual truth becomes so heavily distorted through narratives and whispers. Paramilitary groups change names and are both associated and disassociated from the political parties. Of course, something we’re used to in this country but, for Didion, one gets the impression this is the first time she has encountered such a dirty war.
Running just over 100 pages, it may not be Didion’s finest work. But as an insight into the conflict in El Salvador, it captures the dread and confusion so vividly.
Joan Didion, 1983, Salvador. Granta Publishing. ISBN-13: 978-1783785230
⏩ Christopher Owens was a reviewer for Metal Ireland and finds time to study the history and inherent contradictions of Ireland. He is currently the TPQ Friday columnist.