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. More specifically, reading her, I find myself in a Bolivian supermarket in 2007, taking notes:
Beatles playing dubbed on the loudspeakers: Hola, Jude. An aisle devoted entirely to canned milk. Bella Holandesa with a ruddy Dutch farm girl. Cereals made especially for old people and athletes—ancianos and deportistas—and a box of estrellas de avena, like the Cracklin’ Oat circles I used to eat endlessly in college, except: Stars! Bags of mayonesa as large as infants, 2900 cubic centimeters, and a box of Sopa Naranja made of powdered pumpkins and carrots. An entire row of canned salads: Ensaladas de California and Rusa, both full of “aromas naturales.” Anything that advertises Salsa Americana contains white wine. From the personal ads in Correo del Sur: Yosselin is thin and discrete. Janeth offers “servecio supercompleta con una señorita superatractiva.”
Two months later the same newspaper, Correo del Sur, ran a piece on a group of sex workers on strike in El Alto, the sprawling city of brick shacks on the altiplano above La Paz. The bars and brothels where these women worked had been vandalized. They sat in protest for days outside a local health clinic. Servicios supercompletas. They sewed their lips together with thread.
I look back at my notes: canned salad and powdered pumpkins. I have trouble remembering, what was the point? Metonymy shrugs its shoulders. Ditto, metaphor. The white space between details overwhelms whatever significance they were supposed to bear, whatever pleasure they were meant to provide.
We can declare the facts. We can turn away from the beach towels and say: the Salvadorean army killed a thousand people in the village of Mozote. Or: four church workers were raped. Or: the US government gave the army that did these things $1.5 million a day. But these facts are lined on shelves as well, necessarily chosen and arranged, assigned value by explanations neatly stuck where prices might have been.
We persist. We say, once more: those Bolivian women sewed their lips shut for days. They threaded needles through their skin to stop their speech, to say what good speaking had done them.
A thousand meters below El Alto—in La Paz, during January—the Bolivians hold a traditional festival called Alasitas. For three weeks, the markets around Parque Urbano are full of tiny objects, tiny everything: tiny horses, tiny computers, tiny diplomas, tiny houses, tiny Jeeps, tiny llamas and tiny llama steaks, tiny passports. People buy models of whatever they need most: a new house, a new farm animal, enough food to last the year. They offer their miniature figurines to a miniature man—Ekeko, the midget, also the Aymara god of abundance, a smoking doll cloaked in bright wool. They pin their miniature desires to his miniature poncho.
We often mistake the shrunken for the cute, but there is nothing cute or quaint about the force of what is requested here, what is given shape. I imagine the contents of Didion’s mall arranged like one of these displays, objects pinned to a vast poncho spread across vast shoulders of sky, bright cloth stuccoed with vodka and foie gras.
It would be a panel of material dreams, or dreamed materials—the future for which El Salvador was presumably being saved—an impossible horizon of luxuries at the end of deprivation. It would be an unbounded map, this spread of yearning, too broad to see in its entirety. Except, the thing is—you can see it here, in the Parque Urbano, because it’s small. It’s just ordinary objects you can hold in the palm of your hand. No irony for miles. Here, the details of desire don’t offer illumination so much as insistence—on dream, or delusion, or both: a dwarf god with his freight of tiny prayers, a boundless longing finally visible in full, in scale.
Leslie Jamison is the author of The Gin Closet.