Commentary Magazine


To the Editor:

Mark Falcoff’s review of Joan Didion’s Salvador [Books in Review, May] is perceptive and challenging. While most critics have been content to savor Miss Didion’s standard Angst in a new setting, he asks important questions about her facts and her perspective. I would like to explain why this type of reportage is harmful to our perceptions of Central America.

Miss Didion really has no background as a historian, a political expert, or a sociologist and her journalistic specialties have been things like tabloid murder trials, water, headaches, etc. Her last novel was condescending in its attitude toward all of Latin American culture. To think therefore that she could go to El Salvador for a two-week stint and capture the soul of the country is ludicrous.

What Miss Didion has done in this book is transfer her bleak feelings about life to this war-torn country. The “heart of darkness” she found in El Salvador is in fact no different from the one she previously discovered in Beverly Hills or Marin County, though the special effects here (bombings, mangled bodies, etc.) are much more spectacular and cinematic. . . .

It isn’t only activist liberals Miss Didion is poking fun at, but anybody who thinks that people’s actions can make a difference. Her basic indifference to the country allows her to use clichés like “barbarism,” “dark frontier,” “cultural zero,” which make it easy to write off El Salvador as a lost cause. Instead of bringing us closer to the scene, her book ends up leaving us numb and confused. Somehow, I think we should expect more from our writers.

Dan O’Neill
Los Angeles, California

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