From The Paris Review:
Near the beginning of Salvador, Joan Didion’s 1982 account of a repressive state in the thick of civil war, Didion goes to the mall. She’s looking for the truth of a country held in its aisles, and also tablets to purify her drinking water. She doesn’t find the tablets, but she does find everything else: imported foie gras and beach towels printed with maps of Manhattan, cassette tapes of Paraguayan music, vodka bottles packaged with stylish glasses. She writes:
This was a shopping center that embodied the future for which El Salvador was presumably being saved, and I wrote it down dutifully, this being the kind of “color” I knew how to interpret, the kind of inductive irony, the detail that was supposed to illuminate the story. As I wrote it down I realized that I was no longer much interested in this kind of irony, that this was a story that would not be illuminated by such details, that this was a story that would perhaps not be illuminated at all.
Her intelligence excavates a truth at once uncomfortable and crystalline: in the middle of a war you can’t see, you still want to look. You want to squint your keen and cutting eyes at whatever you can find. Because your subject is fear, and fear isn’t something with a particular scent or tint, only something in the air that makes it difficult to breath. It will not respond to any name when you call it into the light. Every night in El Salvador, people were being picked up in trucks, killed, and thrown in landfills, and Joan Didion stood looking at a row of imported vodkas, thinking, What? Just pointing at them, because they were there, and what right did they have? Irony is easier than hopeless silence but braver than flight. The problem is that sometimes your finger shakes as you gesture, there is no point, and you can’t point anywhere—or at least not at anything visible. I sometimes find myself in the role that Didion casts aside—the aisle-wandering, detail-pillaging self, who comes for water-purifying tablets and leaves with the price-tagged Cliff Notes of a country’s suffering.