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3.75  ·  Rating details ·  2,245 ratings  ·  206 reviews
"Terror is the given of the place." The place is El Salvador in 1982, at the ghastly height of its civil war. The writer is Joan Didion, who delivers an anatomy of that country's particular brand of terror–its mechanisms, rationales, and intimate relation to United States foreign policy.As ash travels from battlefields to body dumps, interviews a puppet president, and cons ...more
Paperback, 112 pages
Published April 26th 1994 by Vintage (first published 1983)
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Average rating 3.75  · 
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 ·  2,245 ratings  ·  206 reviews

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Jan 17, 2014 rated it really liked it
Shelves: 2014
"Terror is the given of the place."
- Joan Didion, Salvador


In 1983, when Salvador was first published, I was nine. I remember those years as being ones where I heard about people disappeared, death squads, kidnappings, priests killed, nuns raped. Who left me in front of the television? It was the second major international crisis that became part of my childhood dreams. I remember 3-5 years earlier, being freaked out by the Iran hostage crisis. I was aware of angry protesters, machine guns, bli
Jul 02, 2012 rated it liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
Didion's prose is precise and exquisite, but I struggled with her interpretation of her experience. She argues against continued U.S. involvement in El Salvador's civil war, which seems like the "right" argument, but one based primarily on her fear for her own safety (understandable but not actually relevant to the formation of U.S. policy) and secondarily on her complete dismissal of the value of Salvadoran culture and, ultimately, Salvadoran lives. Her story covers a two-week time period durin ...more
Mar 13, 2013 rated it really liked it
If I were just judging Joan Didion's prose, it would be 5 stars every time. But a few things about "Salvador" kept me from giving this book a 5 star rating.

But first, a disclaimer. I'm half Salvadoran. My American father and Salvadoran mother met in El Salvador and married in '77 and I was born in '79 in the States, just a few months after my parents decided to come back here. That said, I've never really spoken to them about the war. I've only actually only visited the country once, as a child,
Dec 13, 2007 rated it really liked it
I've always been in love with Joan Didion's reportage, with the dry, affectless, distanced language that suddenly, powerfully, yields razor-sharp insights. "Salvador" is the finest of her post-1960s writing---- a picture of a ghostly, fear-haunted country at the beginning of the 1980s. Didion catches the emptiness of official language and press releases, the utter and all-consuming cynicism of a society where conspiracy is assumed and random death a fact of daily life, the empty streets and vill ...more
Mar 22, 2012 rated it it was ok
Fine writing and terrifically atmospheric, but at thirty years' remove, Didion's weary (and wary) apolitical stance--her insistence that it's impossible to tell what's happening or who's responsible and that the violence is all pretty much aimless--feels less like insight and more like giving up. Having just read the remarkable Blood of Brothers: Life and War in Nicaragua, this felt slight and nearly trite. ...more
Sep 12, 2014 rated it it was ok
Okay, it is perhaps unfair to expect of what is clearly a "minor" work like Salvador the same thoroughgoing insight that Didion displays in her major non-fiction books like Slouching Toward Bethlehem and The White Album. That said, I was not impressed by this book.

Salvador made me realize that Didion is not, in fact, a natural reporter. She is too reclusive, too depressive, and does not seem to thrive on human interaction and experience the way born reporters do. This didn't matter for Slouching
Aug 04, 2019 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition

2.5 Stars!

The US is one of those countries which has interfered with or invaded so many countries within the last century that you sometimes lose track of some of the names. There must be millions of American children out there who will be totally oblivious to their nation’s role in the Salvadoran Civil War.

Of course the US may well have been the strongest supporters of the Salvadoran military government, by 1984 Reagan had spent close to $1 billion in aid, but they were not alone, they were hel
Erik Graff
Apr 26, 2010 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Didion fans
Recommended to Erik by: David Schweickart
Shelves: travel
During the Reagan administration the United States committed itself to a policy of rollback as regards populist movements, particularly in the Americas. We invaded Grenada and created proxy armies in Costa Rica and Honduras while attempting the overthrow of Nicaragua. Unremarkably, we supported the dictatorships of Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador against popular insurgencies.

During this segment of the eighties I was very active politically, both with the Socialist Party and with solidarity g
Dec 11, 2012 rated it liked it
Shelves: nonfiction, travel
If I had read this book in the context of my Latin American history class, I would have appreciated its perspective. The book is a valuable work of current events, or at least it was in the 80's when it was published, but as a work of literature, I was unimpressed. The 107-page book is filled with poorly integrated block quotes that could have been cut down. There's hardly a story in the book. As a reader, I was unsure what the narrator was doing in El Salvador in the first place. I feel like sh ...more
Feb 20, 2012 rated it really liked it
Shelves: central-america
Joan Didion's nonfiction/reportage can be tough to read; "Salvador" is no exception. My difficulty isn't with her subject matter, although it can be grim as it is here or simply excruciating as in her two most recent books covering the deaths of her husband and then her daughter. It is because she produces such beautiful, fully formed and precisely balanced sentences that one (at least this one) can get bogged down in marveling at their perfection. She portrays the sense of anomie, fear and drea ...more
Ah, Madame Didion, how I love the way you take something visceral and awful, and write it as if you were observing it from a bathysphere, smirking and chain-smoking. El Salvador, as we know/knew, is/was a wreck. The point is that, as a privileged American, you can't possibly claim to "feel" what the people are feeling, or to write "objectively" about a situation that your own government, via its local proxy, refuses to let you examine objectively. Instead, the only way to approach the situation ...more
Mark Taylor
In 1982, Joan Didion and her husband, novelist and screenwriter John Gregory Dunne, went to El Salvador to observe the chaos and disorder during the Salvadoran Civil War. Didion and Dunne traveled around El Salvador for two weeks. The end product of their visit was a series of articles that Didion published in The New York Review of Books, and then expanded for her book Salvador, published in 1983.

Didion’s fine writing is on display throughout the book. The end of the first paragraph of Salvado
Jeanne Mixon
Jan 08, 2019 rated it really liked it
I can't say I enjoyed reading it because "enjoy" is the wrong wrong, but I found it very interesting. It had a little bit of a how I spent my summer vacation feel, but when the smartest person in the room tells you about their trip to a war zone, you listen. She doesn't really lay out the history of our involvement in El Salvador, I guess because you are supposed to already know that. My favorite part was the analysis of Gabriel Garcia Marquez. I really was not expecting that. I thought she migh ...more
Gwen Cummings
Dec 10, 2019 rated it really liked it
Salvador is a short read that manages to cover a lot of differing perspectives (Salvadorian locals and ex-pats, State Dept., USAID, etc.), thus giving a powerful overview of what was happening in the country at the time. It's important to note that Didion only spent a few weeks there- this book is in no way indicative of El Salvador's history or the complexity of US involvement. But, written in Didion's beautiful prose, it does a good job encapsulating US involvement in a foreign crisis.
Les Aucoin
Evocative of the the government's barbarous menace at the time. And maybe again, now.
Meg Petersen
Jan 06, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Amazing writing and a deep understanding of Latin American politics.
Aug 07, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: 2019-reads
“Among Americans in El Salvador there is an endemic apprehension of danger in the apparently benign.” Didion’s insight often manages to point to the future, with an eerie and surreal twist. Salvador proves the opacity of what’s already hidden, and somehow what’s to come.
Isabella Argueta
Dec 28, 2019 rated it did not like it
Cynical, distant. Didion doesn’t actually interact with any Salvadorans except ambassador and a few military characters. Only spends two weeks there but is determined to criticize indigenous culture.
Dr. George H. Elder
Jun 26, 2012 rated it it was amazing
This book is about the repressive and oligarical government of El Salvador and its reactionary treatment of it own citizens and dissidents. Salvador is largely a collection of facts that are woven around and among the author and her husband’s 1982 two-week visit to the country.

The shocking events that Didion describes in El Salvador are what makes the piece so successful. She presents these events in great clarity and often does so without being overly verbose. Consider the following passage a
Pedro L. Fragoso
Jul 15, 2014 rated it it was amazing
It's 1982. Argentina is trying to reclaim the Malvinas (or to claim the Falklands...), Margaret Tatcher is sending the Navy to get things under control and win the elections, Paul Theroux is travelling "narrowly, around the entire coast" of Great Britain, to write "about a country in its own language", which "was a great advantage, because in other places one was always interpreting and simplifying. Translation created a muffled obliqueness—one was always seeing the country sideways" (N.B.: I lo ...more
Well,we barley made the airport
For the last plane out
As we taxied down the runway
I could hear the people shout they said:
"Don't come back here again.Yankee"
But if I do I'll bring back more money
Cause all she wants to do is dance - Don Henley

Reading Joan Didion's account of her two week visit to El Salvador in 1982 at the height of the Salvadoran Civil War which was eventually to cost 75,000 lives is truly a trip back through time. Reagan ruled and the perceived evil of the time was communism and
Apr 30, 2018 rated it did not like it
I really didn't like this at all. I'm not sure if this is any indication of her later, and more popular works, but I really didn't appreciate the way that Didion discussed a lot of the gruesome events and chaos in El Salvador during the war in the 1980s. She writes with almost no compassion, and somehow with some sense of knowledge and condescension despite the fact that she was only there for two weeks (I really don't think that that is enough time to be enough of an authority on the topic to w ...more
Ian McHugh
Apr 25, 2010 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Joan Didion's description of early-1980s El Salvador is a terrifically bleak one. The reportage style is beautifully written and wonderfully, powerfully, and horrifically descriptive.
The content seems dated from the El Salvador I am aware of but the interviews with the politicians and ambassadors reflect some of the issues prevalent in the tiny Central American country today. The gulf between rich and poor still exists and Didion's frustration with the lack of access to balanced (or any) coverag
"On this evening that began with the grandson of General Maximiliano Hernandez Martinez [1930s dictator] and progressed to 'Senorita El Salvador 1982' [Miss El Salvador Pageant] and ended, at 12:22 am, with the earthquake, I began to see Gabriel Garcia Marquez in a new light, as a social realist."

Joan Didion's chronicle of the political upheaval of El Salvador in the 1980s is suffused with the country's endemic atmosphere of fear and violence. Her experience of the country is of the unidentified
Shweta Ganesh Kumar
Dec 30, 2013 rated it liked it
Joan Didion's Salvador, set in 1982 is a trapdoor of sorts to the not-so-distant violent history of El Salvador, the country I've called home for almost two years now.
'Salvador' was born out of Didion's two-week long visit to this small Central American Nation, while it was caught up in the throes of a civil war and fear was a political tool, used indiscriminately and effectively.
Terror was all-pervasive. Joan writes about the United States and their interference in the nation's administration
Jun 30, 2008 rated it liked it
First El Salvador has moved on from this time period. While it is a part of Salvadorian history, the country has recovered. My first annoyance with this book was that she called El Salvador Salvador throughout the entire book. That’s like calling Los Angeles, Angeles all the time. The book touches on the subject from an Americanized point of view; it was quite interesting to see how she starts to see some of the picture. There is a great quote which expresses the feelings of the Salvadorian peop ...more
Hank Stuever
Jul 16, 2013 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This was assigned reading in an elective course I took called "Crisis in Central America" when I was a freshman, and then assigned again in Fr. Schroth's Writing for Mass Media course in the journalism program, sophomore year of college. It's kind of a dense intro to Didion's work; until then I'd only read the essays "Goodbye to All That" and "On Keeping a Notebook." (It's also the first inkling of the deeper, synthesized reportorial work Didion would do in the latter half of her career.)

I've r
Jan 12, 2010 rated it liked it
Didion's previous non-fiction often revealed her sense that a malevolent absurdity pervades all things. So visiting civil-war-ravaged El Salvador in the early 80's may well have been provided too perfect a reinforcement of that view -- making this reporting much more of a subjective reaction than a journalistic attempt to understand the place. For Didion, a place where violence, official and casual, has become so ingrained in daily life, where truth had become hugely disregarded by both the Salv ...more
Diane Ramirez
Sep 28, 2009 rated it it was amazing
This book doesn't try to explain what can't seemingly be put into words or even processed internally -- the awful "situation" (one of many odd labels used for the inexplicable) in El Salvador in the 1980s. Unlike many other political tracts and journalistic treatises and horrifying survival tales, of whose importance I am in no way discounting!!, which try their damndest to get some sort of handle on the travesties that occurred in El Salvador and elsewhere in Central America but either wind up ...more
Dec 24, 2016 rated it it was amazing
"The only enemy is totalitarianism, in any guise: communistic, socialistic, capitalistic or militaristic. Man is unique because he has free will and the capacity to choose. When this is suppressed he is no longer a man but an animal. That is why I say that despite differing points of view, we are none of us enemies."

This was a difficult and powerful read. Joan Didion perfectly described the horrors Salvador has faced in a way that drove home the graphic and vile nature while facinating the reade
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Joan Didion was born in California and lives in New York City. She's best known for her novels and her literary journalism.

Her novels and essays explore the disintegration of American morals and cultural chaos, where the overriding theme is individual and social fragmentation. A sense of anxiety or dread permeates much of her work.

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