Book Review

Salvador by Joan Didion

In 2010 I produced a farce set in the El Salvadorian Civil War. In 2016 I learnt about the El Salvadorian Civil War.

Photo on 10-08-2016 at 21.31
Me posing in some toilets

In theory, I should know a lot about the El Salvadorian Civil War, as in 2010 I produced and co-wrote a farce at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe that was set in its “midst”. The farce was called Love Is Darkness, Baby! (Get Used To It) and received only one review. [Either link here or include embarrassing confession that the review has been deleted from the internet: ooh, ooh, ooh, it’s still there, down at the bottom: http://www.threeweeks.co.uk/edailies/100825.html]

We didn’t research the war at all. We didn’t research farces either, in fact we didn’t even realise that what we’d written was a highly derivative, Carry On style, farce until several years later. Love Is Darkness, Baby! was accidentally very offensive, as it was broad, it was ill-thought through and it possessed a searing lack of understanding of the terrible humanitarian and democratic crisis that the war we were using as a backdrop happened to actually have been. We displayed great ignorance and no shame, and for that, I think we are all sorry. Two of the people who were in that play are doing quite well as a two person sketch group on the comedy circuit [some kinda link], while I’m over here being bald on the internet [link to my Huff Post blogger main page].

Joan Didion, however, did more than just research the El Salvadorian Civil War on Wikipedia for five minutes (OK, so we did a little bit, i.e. there was a joke where a character confused Oscar Romero and Alfa Romeo). She was one of the crowd of New Journalism writers made infamous by the one who did Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (I forget his name as the only book of his I’ve read was boring), but her topics were – at least in this case – rather more adult. Adult as in mature, not sexually explicit.

(His name was Hunter S. Thompson, just remembered. There’s a bar in Dalston named after him with pornography in the toilets. Last time I was there I saw like SIX members of the Game of Thrones cast.)

Joan Didion visited El Salvador for a fortnight in the Summer of 1982, when the conflict was at its peak. Over the few months that followed she produced Salvador, a 100 page essay about a country that had been torn apart, with factions within factions fighting factions of different factions and the American government throwing money at any group that claimed to be firmly anti-communist. (The predictable fuckers!)

Didion travels around a country that is utterly in the shit. There is almost no transport infrastructure, roads have been destroyed and bridges blown up, the national airport is in a derelict area that was intended to be developed as a major tourist destination but lost all its investment as the country went to war. She stays in hotels where numerous government officials, business people and journalists (domestic and international, all three) have been murdered, and meets people high up in several of the political groups who are vying for control of a wartorn country.

El Salvador is a small country (I don’t have the internet whilst writing to look it up, or the patience to go back through the book to find the exact figure), but it is one where death had become normalised. People were slaughtered every day. The tourist spots for the handful of foreigners who visited (for monetary gain, all of them, either investors or journalists) included body dumps, in fact were almost entirely made up of body dumps. There were body dumps close to the town, isolated,  body dumps, body dumps that were meant to be hidden and body dumps that were openly open. There were bodies that had been hacked up, throats cut, genitals removed after death and stuffed in mouths, crosses or other symbols cut into faces or chests, clothes removed, limbs removed, eyes pecked out by vultures… One day, Didion visits the main city morgue with a journalist friend. Only seven men had been shot dead that day: this was not considered newsworthy, so the other journalist took the rest of the day off.

Didion sees bodies that have been dumped and sees people who she believes are dumping bodies. She never witnesses any real violence, but hears gunshots, sees bloodstains on the floor of the cathedral in which Oscar Romero was assassinated, sees artillery damage on government buildings and has one peaceful afternoon with the American ambassador, who wants her to believe that everything is fine and that his guys are – as assistants only, no boots on the ground, y’know – doing a great lot of good. But nothing good is happening, El Salvador – when she was there, and for a while after (look up date of peace?) – was in complete disarray, with all sides changing allegiances regularly, the President an empty figurehead who had no idea what was going on but represented (good enough for the Americans, according to Didion) the idea of “democracy”, and slaughter going on daily, daily, daily, as beauty pageants played out and nightclubs kept pumping music and folk festivals were held, all of them attended only by women, old men, children, and soldiers with the clout to do whatever they wanted, when they wanted.

She presents a harrowing picture of a deeply fraught and dangerous society, and her deep personal connection to her topic and real lock on the first person deeply humanises her experiences – she is there as witness, not as combatant, not as interested party, not as tourist: Didion is there to see what is happening and report it back to us, rooted in the way it made her feel, which was deep terror and constant nervousness. Violence could – and did – happen all over the country, with little warning, and there was perhaps an element of luck to her making it out without something more terrifying happen to or right in front of her.

This is a great book, felt, immediate, compelling.

And it completely emphasised why we rashly, ignorantly, chose the setting for our farce – we envisioned mid-Civil War El Salvador as a place where one could do literally anything one wanted, with the right connections and the right money. For our characters, it was an attempt to make a piece of art house cinema of such unreachable ambition that it required production outside of the law. Maybe we were right to understand how fucked the country was at that time, but we were very wrong to treat it as a springboard for a handful of corruption gags about a place we knew next to nothing about. Apologies for the farce, El Salvador, but thank you, Joan Didion, for Salvador.

I think the country is doing better now, but I’ll have to check.

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