Saturday, September 11, 2010

Book 23, El Salvador: “Salvador” by Joan Didion

I’m feeling guilty for reading yet another book by a canonical American author instead of a local writer. (So many writers in Singapore are beginning to diss this term that I’ve decided to embrace it: it was local literature that accepted me in the first place and I’m not going to shift terms because of some PC agenda to make it sound better for curriculum programmers.)

Truth is, I could’ve borrowed something by salvadoreño novelist Horacio Castellanos Moya: our National Library stocks three books by him and his style reads really well. Reason I didn’t was:

a) Dance With Snakes, the novel I wanted (and the novel that launched him to fame), was checked out by another reader, and when I went the day it was returned the book was still in transit,

b) I was getting tired of novel after novel; we haven’t had a memoir since East Timor, and I don’t want to read I, Rigoberta Menchú for Guatemala when there’s another guy I could read who won his Nobel Prize for Literature, thank you very much, and was actually honest about his work being fiction,

c) I’ve been curious about reading Didion ever since Justin Bond made fun of her in a cabaret show of his I saw in Manhattan. And The Year of Magical Living seems a little trite.

Addendum to (b) is that I really wanted to know what had happened in this damn country for once. Broken by civil war in the ‘70s and ‘80s, and boy, does Didion make it sound like a basket case in her journalistic report (commissioned for Time magazine, I believe). No real heroes of independence, she says, and even the great precolonial civilisations of Mesoamerica and South America only barely touched the tiny country. The traditional way to make wicker, according to an interviewee, is to import it from Guatemala.

But of course, the very point of visiting the country for two weeks during a period of civil war and American-funded dictatorship is that no-one knows what the fuck is going on. All she can do is report the haze of events: the constant killings of young men in the street, the mendaciousness of the ministries, the cluelessness of the embassy, the alienated distance of news agencies, the ever-present atmosphere of danger, the irony that the only earthquake-reinforced building in San Salvador (the American Embassy) was the only one to suffer real damage during the quake, because the others were flimsy enough to ride it and the people were like, well, power’s out again, let’s turn on the generator.

No-one even knew what the population was. When 110% of eligible voters voted in the elections, they just decided to change the record of the number of eligible voters so it became 80% turnout.

Oddly, Didion doesn’t even conjure up rage against the right-wing dictator Roberto D’Aubisson because of the impossibility of gathering concrete evidence (other than widespread assent) that he is behind these killings of families and young men and indigenous villages; doesn’t even get us angry at the Reagan administration’s funding of D’Aubisson as a Cold War tactic because she portrays the US as being actually concerned with stopping the killings, and then being accused of “blackmail” by local politicians when they talk about the possibility of withdrawing it… you read it and you think, oh, it’s all fucked up, no wonder they sent all the other reporters to Beirut and Iran-Iraq instead.

But this sort of southern indifference to preciseness, the very antithesis of the agenda of a norteamericana journalist, and the lack of a real culture replaced by images of American and Mexican pulp - La Bamba in the desolate disco and teenage blonde lovers on the photo albums containing images of the dismembered dead. It’s a real downer. Maybe a little ethnically skewed, too. Really should read Castellanos Moya for his perspective. He speaks about the war’s aftermath.

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Interesting thing, though: Didion also notes that Gabriel García Márquez’s Autumn of the Patriarch is probably based specifically on Salvadoran dictator General Maximiliano Hernández Martínez, that after living in El Salvador she understands that it he is not a magical realist but a social realist, that the history of Latin America is written as a non-rational tragedy because it is tragically non-rational to begin with. But things have changed, right?

Representative Quote: Even la verdad, the truth, was a degenerated hrase in El Salvador: on my first evening in the country I was asked by a Salvadoran woman at an embassy party what I hoped to find out in El Salvador. I said that ideally I hoped to find out la verdad, and she beamed approvingly. Other journalists, she said, did not want la verdad. She called over two friends, who also approved: no one told la verdad. if I wrote la verdad it would be good for El Salvador. I realized thati had stumbled into a code, that these women used la verdad as it was used on the bumper stickers favored that spring and summer by ARENA people. “Journalists, Tell the Truth!” the bumper stickers warned in Spanish, and they meant the truth according to Roberto D’Aubisson.

Next Book: Miguel Ángel Asturias’s Men of Maize, from Guatemala.

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