Salvador, Joan Didion


“That the texture of life in such a situation is essentially untranslatable became clear to me only recently.”

This is one of the strangest Bookstravaganza reading experiences I’ve ever had. I’m coming into my usual December melancholy (why are we here, who cares about us, what’s the point in loving people if we can’t love them as much as we love books, etc), which generally doesn’t come ’til about the 27th and always slows me down. And then this book, well, the quote I’ve shared above hints at why I found it challenging. I read it in a liminal space between engagement and apathy. I have too much black bile, probably. I’m not sure what you do about that.

In 1982, Joan Didion traveled to El Salvador with her husband to provide a journalistic account of the civil war. And that is an untranslatable situation: even in this stylistic masterclass, Didion is unable to accurately render terror on the page. She describes it, gets near it, but the full scope of that war remains just outside the frame. The closest we get to knowing it is understanding that she felt and experienced something beyond our scope of knowledge.

But then, it’s also oddly universal. In 1982, American foreign policy was doing the same kind of stuff it does today. So the stuff she covers rings true, rings familiar, almost to the point of frustration. It’s been thirty years, and our 24-hour news cycle makes the horrors she describes practically commonplace. The more we hear something, the more we accept it, is that how it works? If I’d read this in 1982, would I have seen it as a call to arms or a cataloging of something unrelated to me? We tell ourselves stories in order to live, Didion said that. What stories do we tell ourselves to paper over the worst things we do to each other?

Books read: 12


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