When Joan Didion died in December, the obituaries and tributes were impressively various. Most focused on the Didion of the late sixties and early seventies, the one who wrote Slouching Toward Bethlehem and The White Album. Others insisted that the Didion of the nineties and early aughts—the author of long pieces in the New York Review of Books and the New Yorker—was the better political writer. Some wrote about Didion the L.A. novelist, some about Didion the memoirist of grief; others wrote about a “New Hollywood” Didion, or Didion the Goldwater-voting conservative.
Few of her admirers, however, had much to say about Didion’s writing on Latin America. Central America is a setting in two of her novels, The Book of Common Prayer and The Last Thing He Wanted, and her early books give brief accounts of voyages to Mexico and Colombia. But it’s a slim volume about the Reagan administration’s intervention in El Salvador, and a longer report about Cuban exiles in Miami, which tell us the most about Didion’s mid-career pivot to Latin America. If the early Didion wrote about a “center” that wasn’t holding in the United States, trying to “come to terms with disorder,” this later Didion explored new horizons of disorder abroad, at the fraying periphery of the American empire.
In 1982, when Didion was an established writer at the peak of her powers, she published Salvador, which described two weeks she spent reporting on the Salvadoran civil war. (The book first appeared as two pieces in the New York Review of Books.) North American commentators have often looked south in search of morality tales, operating under the illusion that in Latin America the good guys and the bad guys are easy to tell apart. Didion, whose heroes included the adventurers Conrad and Hemingway, might have felt the same temptation. Reporting from a country lacerated by government-sponsored death squads, however, Didion doesn’t appeal to heroic archetypes or easy moralism, but to St. John of the Cross: “This was a story that would perhaps not be illuminated at all…. This was perhaps even less a ‘story’ than a true noche oscura”—a dark night of the soul. In this dark night she learned about the “mechanism of terror,” heard of murdered peasants left “in unnatural positions,” their faces “obliterated by acid,” a “mash of misplaced ears and teeth.” Her life was threatened more than once.
Didion went to El Salvador primarily to understand what the United States was doing there. The Reagan administration’s stated mission was to support the establishment of a liberal democracy and to stop the spread of communism in the region. What Didion found was frustrated American personnel insisting that the other side kills, too. A simplistic understanding of the conflict doomed the American intervention. “It was certainly possible to describe some members of the opposition…as ‘out-and-out Marxists,’ but it was equally possible to describe other members of the opposition…as ‘a broad-based coalition of moderate and center-left groups.’” But “the right in El Salvador never made this distinction: to the right, anyone in the opposition was a communist, along with most of the American press, the Catholic Church, and, as time went by, all Salvadoran citizens not of the right.” Victims of the Salvadoran Right included members of the Christian Democratic Party, Catholic nuns, and the now-canonized Archbishop Óscar Romero. Didion concludes: “‘Anti-communism’ was seen, correctly, as the bait the United States would always take.”