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Martha Gelhorn—Every Squeak Counts
(or: A Note on the Unexpected Pleasures of Research)
February 9, 2007

John Updike once remarked that he realized, early in his career, that he could either be a reader or a writer, but he couldn't be both. Hearing that, I felt welcomed, as it were, to one of the severest regrets of many a professional writer—the lack of time one has to pursue reading for pleasure. Deadlines, the demands of research—not to mention the fear of a sort of stylistic or tonal contamination many novelists experience when they read fiction while at work on a manuscript—bars many of us from reading as widely as we would like.

And so much research requires plodding through impenetrable tracts of dense lifeless data, culling for that one crackling detail that might bring a passage to life. The joy is compound, then, when a source not only provides the information sought, but does so with a fresh, commanding style.

That's how it was when I encountered the work of Martha Gelhorn, war correspondent for nearly fifty years (as well as a novelist and short story writer), too often known merely for her brief marriage to Ernest Hemingway. Her collection, The Face of War, drawn from her work covering combat zones from the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s to Central America in the 1980s, provided one of those rare frissons every reader craves—the discovery of a fresh voice that is so unique, so penetrating, so sure-handed and clear, that every page seems to shimmer or haunt.

Opening the book at random, I came across her descriptions of the Nuremburg defendants, and was spellbound: Goering with his "terrible mouth . . . a smile that was not a smile, but only a habit his lips had taken." Hess, with "dark dents for eyes," who "jerked his foreshortened head on his long neck, weird, inquisitive and birdlike." Frank with his "small cheap face, pink-cheeked, with a little sharp nose and black sleek hair. He looked patient and composed, like a waiter when the restaurant is not busy." And Streicher, compulsively chewing gum, his face blank: "the face of an idiot, this one."

But the principal reason I was drawn to her was because, late in her professional life, she ventured to El Salvador, where much of my latest book, Blood of Paradise, takes place. She notes that she went there "in stupefying ignorance," but it was her motive for going that I found inspiring:

As citizens, I think we all have an exhaustive duty to know what our governments are up to, and it is cowardice or laziness to ask: what can I do about it anyway? Every squeak counts, if only in self-respect. Gloomily, because otherwise I would be ashamed of myself, I made the small effort of a detour to El Salvador.

My own detour to El Salvador for Blood of Paradise was inspired by just such a need to know what my government was up to, especially in light of the drumbeat rhetoric from the right to the effect that it was our success in "fostering democracy" in El Salvador that would provide a template for our inevitable "victory" in Iraq. The obscene wrong-headedness of this conceit, the utterly poisonous notion of democracy embedded in that world view, became one of the prime inspirations for Blood of Paradise.

She helped me with my ignorance, too, just as she corrected her own. She spoke of a young American journalist who checked into the San Salvador Sheraton, left the hotel and then was never seen again until his body was returned to his family a year and a half later. The reason for his murder? No one could tell. Suggesting it might have been a case of mistaken identity, Gelhorn reflects acidly, "When killing is so easy, general and never punished, there must often be casual errors."

Despite having been in war-ravaged cities such as Madrid, London, Helsinki and Saigon, she found San Salvador to be the most frightening of all. The violence didn't come loudly from outside, but stealthily from within. The police hunted day and night, and she feared for the people who spoke to her. "Those who should have hated me as an American were friendly and trusting. But I knew what they risked and was awed by their courage."

She came to admire the country's poor: "Learning to read is the peasants' rebellion. Their primer is the Bible. They were called the People of the Word, and that made them subversives. Subversives are prey."

She was also outraged by the state of the refugee camps, the worst she'd seen since Vietnam. "Without the Church, courageous in El Salvador, the refugees would starve." And her conversations with the wealthy women of the capital revealed a mind-numbing oblivion to the true state of affairs in their country: Only a few agitators were causing the trouble; talk of murdered civilians was propaganda; if there were any refugees, they were fleeing the Communists.

Such bromides were echoed by President Reagan, for whom Gelhorn harbored a particularly fierce revulsion, describing him as "boyish," with an "ultra sincere chocolate voice." When he equates the Nicaraguan Contras with the Founding Fathers, she can barely contain her rage: "This is truly astonishing, since the Founding Fathers were not known to gouge out the eyes and mutilate the bodies of their enemies, or to commit other such unseemly acts." As I discovered during my own research, the Contras were also known for abducting, raping and then murdering teenage girls, and they never once engaged a Sandinista military unit, preferring instead to ravage unarmed villages, killing mayors and teachers and doctors. To call the Contras the moral equivalent of the Founding Fathers, as Reagan did, is perhaps the most malicious slur imaginable against the men who founded our country. It's a crime no one said this—or better yet, screamed it—at the time.

Gelhorn found many parallels between El Salvador and Vietnam, which she also covered as a journalist, and she remarked that it was not easy being a citizen of a superpower, nor was it getting easier. She would feel isolated in her shame, she said, if she didn't belong to a perennial minority of Americans, the "obstinate bleeding hearts who will never agree that might makes right, and know that if the end justifies the means, the end is worthless." She recalls with both fury and shame how Johnson and Nixon lied about their plans to escalate the conflict in Southeast Asia, cheating America of the leaders its citizens thought they had elected, only to blunder into atrocity:

Power corrupts, an old truism, but why does it also make the powerful so stupid? Their power schemes become unstuck in time, at cruel cost to others; then the powerful put their stupid important heads together and invent the next similar schemes.

Like I said, sometimes research isn't a chore, it's a joy, an inspiration. A call to arms. Sometimes it reminds you that the battle against naked power never ends, and life is a daily choosing of sides—if only for self-respect.

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