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Salvador

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"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 considers the distinctly Salvadoran grammar of the verb "to disappear," Didion gives us a book that is germane to any country in which bloodshed has become a standard tool of politics.

112 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 1983

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About the author

Joan Didion

99 books10.9k followers
Joan Didion was born in California and lived in New York City. She was 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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Displaying 1 - 30 of 279 reviews
Profile Image for Darwin8u.
1,559 reviews8,648 followers
September 18, 2017
"Terror is the given of the place."
- Joan Didion, Salvador

description

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, blindfolds, the Ayatollah Khomeini's rants and a huge dark hole of uncertainty.

While the Iranian hostage crisis shares very little DIRECTLY with the civil war in El Salvador -- excepting the disgusting way people treat each other, the screwed up way that America dealt with both Central America (El Salvador & Nicaragua) and Iran, and the lies we tell ourselves to pretend things are getting better -- these two countries did exist in my childhood nightmares. The FMLN, death squads and Tehran's angry students swirled together in my dreams. Thirty years later, as an adult, the boogie men of my childhood were recreated as I read Salvador. Didion writes like an orthopedic surgeon cuts: straight, deep, confidently and deep TO the bone. This book scared the shit out of me. It made me sad. It made me want the comfort of my mom. Tonight, I'm sleeping with the lights on.
Profile Image for Becki.
17 reviews2 followers
March 19, 2013
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, while the war was still going on. But my entire extended family continued to live there through the war and still do today.

So I come to the book with some ideas in my head about pre-Civil War El Salvador, as well as some knowledge of what happened both after Didion wrote this book and, even later, after the war ended.

As a snapshot, this is probably a somewhat accurate depiction of the country from an American who stayed there for TWO weeks. And that's my biggest problem with it. How can you really get a sense of this incredibly complicated war and truly get to know and understand the people and culture you're writing about from a scant two weeks on the ground? I think it's truly misleading to use this as a definitive examination of the country during the war.

This is a look at a very bloody war, but as graphic as the descriptions can be at times, it's actually a very sterile. You just see body counts, not people. There's no look at the culture (other than some off-base generalizations like "Salvadorans don't do numbers accurately") to really examine HOW the country got to be where it was in '82 when Didion wrote this snapshot. Lots of interviews with the US ambassador and high-ranking Salvadoran military officials but very little perspective of everyday people living day-to-day during this time.

Part of this could be because of when this book was written (1982, right in the midst of the awful war, not to mention smack dab in the middle of the Cold War) and a political point Didion may have been trying to prove, but whatever the reason, "Salvador" left me wanting.

Also, the insistence at calling the country Salvador drove me up a wall. I've never in my life heard the country referred to like that.
Profile Image for Rachel.
468 reviews11 followers
July 8, 2012
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 during which she overgeneralizes her own terror as the experience that all Salvadoran citizens must be having, yet the only Salvadorans whose stories she recounts are the ones currently in power (who are likely afraid-but for different reasons than Didion) --and a few besieged writers (who, admittedly, are likely experiencing a fear very similar to Didion's except perhaps even more intense since they can't easily leave the country). In addition, she criticizes the quality of the cultural artifacts she encounters--crafts, dances, religious ceremonies--and informs us that El Salvador "has always been a frontier, even before the Spaniards arrived. The great Mesoamerican cultures penetrated this far south only shallowly. The great South American cultures thrust this far north only sporadically." It's hard for me not to interpret such statements as dismissive. If no self-respecting culture has ever invested in it, why should "los norteamericanos"?

Much of her argument derives from the slipperiness of the language used by Salvadoran leaders and U.S. diplomats alike that purposefully obfuscates both the war and its outcomes. Readers of Latin American literature will be familiar with these examples in their form if not their details. The work is important because of the time (Cold War) and audience (American general public) for whom she published. Her work certainly demands that readers become more critical of Cold War rhetoric and diplomatic decisions, but while she argues against some of the tools of American imperialism, Didion is unable to free herself from the inherent chauvinism on which that imperialism relies. The contradiction makes for a bizarre yet thought-provoking read.

Profile Image for Jake.
256 reviews21 followers
October 16, 2014
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 Toward Bethlehem, because it was essentially crticism, in which Didion could get by on her brilliant intelligence and total cultural mastery. Not so for Salvador, in which Didion's mordant wit sours into mere cynicism.

In order to be successful investigating a foreign culture, Didion would have to want to actually engage with that culture. But that is not really what she wants to do here. Instead, Didion sits in her hotel room, getting duly depressed by El Salvador and American foreign policy. This is not edifying.

The problem is highlighted in a passage toward the end of the book, when Didion makes a rare foray into the country itself, this time to a sort of improvised "indigenous crafts fair." Didion finds much to be disgusted about here, primarily the phony nature and cultural poverty of the whole thing. This is fine, but at this point I would expect someone reporting on this event, however stage-managed it might be, to attempt conversation with some of the participants. Instead, Didion is content to tell us her take on things--jaded disgust--and render the "indigenous" folk with a sort of murky speculation that failed to illuminate her supposed subject. This was less journalism and more an exercise in kneejerk malaise.
Profile Image for Garrett.
6 reviews
March 22, 2012
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.
Profile Image for Jim.
2,004 reviews660 followers
November 4, 2022
Joan Didion was a rancher's daughter from Sacramento who voted for Barry Goldwater in 1964. She appeared to be wavering until she went to visit El Salvador in the 1980s. In her short book Salvador, she comes face to face with the profound disconnect between what the Ronald Reagan administration is saying and the ghastly realities of the murderous Roberto D'Aubuisson and the widespread massacres of Salvadorans earmarked for death for no apparent reason.

Her writing style is, as usual, awesome:
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 perhaps not be illuminated at all, that this was perhaps even less a "story" than a true noche obscura. As I waited to cross back over the Boulevard de los Heroes to the Camino Real I noticed soldiers herding a young civilian into a van, their guns at the boy's back, and I walked straight ahead, not wanting to see anything at all.
The vagaries of U.S. involvement in the Third World did not begin forty years ago, but El Salvador indicated that somehow, Washington did not know at all how to deal with right-wing (or even left-wing) violence.
Profile Image for DoctorM.
836 reviews2 followers
November 27, 2010
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 villages haunted by jeeps full of killers and where certain corners and vacant fields are known body dumps. If you read this, listen to Bruce Cockburn sing "If I Had A Rocket Launcher" in the background: it's the only song that catches a trace of Central America in the nightmare years of the early and mid-1980s. "Salvador"'s politics are clear, but not designed to be a polemic or an expose. Didion leaves you with something much more disturbing.
2,154 reviews31 followers
August 4, 2019

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 helped by the Latin American dictators like Pinochet’s Chile and Videla’s Argentina.

Didion gives a grim yet compelling oversight into the death squads, Sheraton murders, the raped and murdered missionaries and some of the main players involved in the war, and there are some fairly graphic descriptions of the casualties.

Overall I thought there was a distinct lack of clarity, depth and focus with her reporting and as a result, this doesn’t make for particularly great reading and it made me long for someone like Kapuscinski who would have handled it a lot better and made the writing a lot clearer.
Profile Image for Stefanie.
Author 2 books13 followers
December 12, 2012
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 she should have made herself more of a character to develop tension etc. If she was going for more of a journalistic approach, then she should have left herself out of it altogether. It also would have helped to get a lot more of the history of the country to provide a context for the events described. I don't think the average person has much background knowledge about El Salvador.
Profile Image for Erik Graff.
4,984 reviews1,084 followers
February 9, 2011
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 groups at my school, Loyola University Chicago. It was like VietNam all over again, like high school and college, except this time, with the draft inactive, people were generally less concerned. As during our adventures in Southeast Asia, I read quite a deal about the history and politics of Central and South America during this period.

Didion's book was purchased in the eighties, but sat unread for over a decade. It was not a history or a work of political science, so it didn't seem so vital. Besides, Didion was just a name to me, not someone I was into reading. Getting around to it years later was in part an exercise in reminiscence, in part the result of having befriended a Salvadoran temporarily resident in Chicago.

In fact, although based only upon her own reading and a mere two weeks in the country, Salvador is a good, albeit impressionistic, book. Short, it reads like one of the current events essays one appreciates in the New York Review of Books. Indeed, I wouldn't be surprised if it had appeared in some form either there or in The New Yorker. Most memorable at this juncture is her description of the cliff outside the capital below which were the tossed, bloated bodies of suspected communists.
Profile Image for Fiona.
163 reviews29 followers
April 30, 2018
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 write an entire book). She was disparaging of the people and described a lot of the horrors that she heard about with what I felt was a disturbing distance. Additionally, I knew very little about the war going into this novel and she gives almost no context. She discusses the politics of the country and US involvement as well as her conversations with some of the major players without ever explaining the basics of the situations. If you are interested I would recommend a quick wikipedia research session before picking it up (if you're like me and don't really know anything about El Salvador or the war). Overall, this book really just frustrated and disappointed me, especially given that Didion is such a hyped author. Not sure if this means that I won't like anything she's written but it has definitely put any of her other works I'd potentially be interested in on the back burner until I can forget about this one.
Profile Image for Ed .
479 reviews31 followers
March 15, 2012
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 dread that accompanied one everywhere in El Salvador in the 1980s so well it could cause post traumatic stress in anyone who was there.

Extraordinary book from a great American author.
Profile Image for Andrew.
1,963 reviews674 followers
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December 24, 2013
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 honestly in the moment is to contemplate its futility and horror from a distance. Preferably from inside your bathysphere.
Profile Image for Misael Galdámez.
103 reviews2 followers
November 16, 2020
Struggled with this book more than I thought I would. Maybe I lacked some context on El Salvador at the time of writing. I did enjoy her framing of American action in El Salvador, and how meaningless or superficial it could really be.
Profile Image for Arif Abdurahman.
Author 1 book65 followers
February 27, 2017
Di mana El Salvador? Kenapa dengan El Salvador? Enggak salah emang, realitas Amerika Latin lebih edan, seedan yg digambarkan dalam karya fiksi, bahkan lebih.
Profile Image for Robert.
Author 14 books93 followers
March 12, 2022
Salvador by Joan Didion is compelling, like all of her work, but it rests on a two week reporting visit to El Salvador in 1982 that has its understandable limitations (even if Didion buttressed her book with a good bit of research before and after her trip.)

At this point I would think you could get plenty out of this book if you knew something about El Salvador in the 1980s but if not, all you would get is Didion's sharp writing--perhaps that's enough.

Back then El Salvador and all of Central America were red hot topics. People like myself involved in foreign affairs studied Central America carefully. There were acronyms and personalities and storylines that had Washington riveted in the Executive Branch, on the Hill, and in the media and think tank world. Basically, the plot had to do with "fighting communism" in the western hemisphere, particularly in terms of Cuban support for Nicaragua and the Sandinistas.

El Salvador boiled with violence that was only ancillary to that Cold War scenario. Didion correctly portrays the U.S. as attempting to buttress El Salvador's government and make it strong enough and stable enough to keep the commies out, but the fact is that the military and the paramilitary and the guerrillas weren't necessarily at war over communism in the western hemisphere

The conflict in El Salvador had different roots. There were fourteen family groups who controlled huge tracts of land; that gave them the wherewithal to control the banks and to an extent the government. Poverty in El Salvador was extreme if you weren't born into one of those fourteen families. So there was a socio-political uprising that went on for years and years, and in a very self-interested way the military established itself as arbiter and spoils-keeper, generally supporting the rich, generally not supporting the poor, and always battling with the rebels (let's skip the acronyms, there were different groups of rebels). The U.S. problem was that the military and paramilitary (arms of the government, after all) committed all manner of atrocities. So how could the U.S. funnel money to human rights' violators? Didion catches this question in a basic way and adorns it with the atmosphere of menace and fear that permeated the country. Somehow the U.S. did keeping funneling money to El Salvador's government.

I visited El Salvador even more briefly in 1987. The situation was as bad or worse than ever. San Salvador, the capital, had suffered a terrible earthquake the year before. There was rubble along the roadside everywhere, large piles of dirt and bricks. Napoleon Duarte was president. He was a centrist, a former mayor of San Salvador, and a Notre Dame-educated engineer. I was a member of a small group that met with him. He was attuned to resolving all of El Salvador's problems but lacked the resources to do much, a pretty battered guy who could be shot anywhere and at any time because he knew exactly what was going on. My group then moved to a luncheon/discussion with representatives of business (the 14 families.) We were harangued about the United States privileging human rights over fighting communism. (Again, I don't think that communism really was the incendiary dynamic in El Salvador.) I had the distinct impression that these guys had what they had and intended to keep it; they weren't giving anything away; in fact, they were the source of funding of paramilitary activities intended to guard their riches. Then we met with the Minister of Defense, Vides Casanova. His schtick was that he needed more money, equipment and training so he could deal with both the rebels and the paramilitaries...and squeeze money out of everyone, including the U.S. (which was supplying $100 million a year in military aid at the time.) Of course, Vides Casanova and others presided over thousands of atrocities during their time in power.

Didion basically makes the case for viewing El Salvador as a bad place to spend two weeks and for considering U.S. policies as feckless at best, stupid, cynical and harmful at worst. Basically, she was right, but after so many wars and atrocities and insurgencies and counterinsurgencies all over the world in the ensuing decades, El Salvador has long since disappeared in the rearview mirror.

Profile Image for Molly Queal.
73 reviews
December 31, 2022
pretty cursory introduction to the political turmoil of early 80s El Salvador, and I’m sure, as that of a white American woman visiting for a mere two weeks, Didion’s insight is lacking somewhat. That being said I knew nothing at all about El Salvador so I found even the basic facts really interesting (and grim), and Didion’s prose is perfect as always.
Profile Image for Long Lim.
18 reviews3 followers
January 3, 2021
I upped my rating after having a night to think about it. I felt indifferent (or is it ambivalent) after finishing it last night but it's still haunting me. I'm going to try and figure it out.

It took me a long time to finish Salvador. From the date, I can see that it's been almost exactly three years. It was always there in my bag; I snuck in a few pages here and there for a few minutes here and there. Thinking about it now, given the collective psychic trauma we've had to endure throughout the last four years, I can see that I actively avoided this book. US experimentation with inducing political dystopia had come home in a real way.

"It was certainly possible to describe some members of the opposition ... as 'out-and-out-Marxists," but it was equally possible to describe other members of the opposition ... as a 'broad-based coalition of moderate and center-left groups." The right in El Salvador never made this distinction: to the right, anyone in the opposition was a communist, along with most of the American press, the Catholic Church, and, as time went by, all Salvadorean citizens not of the right. In other words there remained a certain ambiguity about political terms as they were understood ..., where 'left' may mean, in the beginning, only a resistance to seeing one's family killed or disappeared. That it comes eventually to mean something else may be ... the Procrustean bed we made ourselves," (p. 94).

And here we are. 2021.

I won't comment on the specific sociopolitical or cultural commentary of Salvador but will say that it's a critique of US neoimperialism/neocolonialism/neoconservatism as viewed through Orwell's Politics and the English Language, and what it's wrought in places like Salvador, Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan.

I suppose that if Didion had spent two weeks in Afghanistan, she may very well arrive at the same exact book but with a different title and more contemporary names. That too is also the point, as "names are understood locally to have only a situational meaning, and the change of a name is meant to be accepted as a change in the nature of the thing named. ... This tactic of solving a problem by changing its name is by no means limited to government," (p. 63).

The continual/cyclical displacement of names marks El Salvador as not so much a country but a forever process of displacement. As Didion points out, it exists in only five-year horizons, in which every montanza, every killing, resets the horizon. It's not so much the events themselves that are important (in fact, they're irrelevant), but the repetition itself, and what's left in the wake at the end of each cycle. It is bound by its history to the point of being ahistorical itself. "There is a sense in which the place remains marked by the meanness and discontinuity of all frontier history, by a certain frontier proximity to the cultural zero," (p. 73).

There is a lot to unpack here, especially when thinking about Gloria E. Anzaldúa's Borderlands/La Frontera.

I think most people who read Joan Didion know what they're getting into. Sharp, transparent, almost mundane prose that obfuscates an ineffable sense of violence, misanthropy, and weariness. It's the language of post-traumatic stress and the sites of violence are no longer in the faraway jungle (which in a helicopter flyover, Didion sees is actually not that far away) but are now the church, the embassy, and the Sheraton.

What happens to the psyche when the safe places are now the danger and home, is the place of evil. How do you reconcile that?
Profile Image for Mark Taylor.
218 reviews10 followers
September 23, 2019
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 Salvador gives the reader a preview of what is to follow, as Didion writes that to visit El Salvador is “…to plunge directly into a state in which no ground is solid, no depth of field reliable, no perception so definite that it might not dissolve into its reverse.” (p.13)

The Salvadoran Civil War was a brutal and bloody conflict, and Didion relates the grim details: “The dead and pieces of the dead turn up in El Salvador everywhere, every day, as taken for granted as in a nightmare, or a horror movie.” (p.19)

Didion interviews several government officials, and at one point she and Dunne and some other journalists attempt to speak to a colonel but return without meeting him. “…nothing came of the day but overheard rumors, indefinite observations, fragments of information that might or might not fit into a pattern we did not perceive.” (p.45) I like that sentence very much, and it seems to be a good summary of the book itself.

Didion comes to no grand conclusions at the end of Salvador, and it seems the only thing we have learned is that it’s a complicated place and there’s no easy answer for stopping the killing. Indeed, the civil war would continue until 1992.

Salvador is a short book, just over 100 pages. Does it really need to exist as a stand-alone book rather than a long piece within a larger collection? Probably not. It’s a little unfair to expect anyone to turn out an entire book based on just two weeks of reporting, even if they are an author as talented as Joan Didion. Because of it’s length and the short amount of time Didion spent in the country, Salvador is inevitably going to feel like it’s just skimming the surface. Salvador is still an interesting book, but it’s not an essential one.
Profile Image for Booknblues.
1,073 reviews8 followers
January 19, 2016
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 the worse kind was that found in the Americas. It was to be battled at any cost.

Didion talks of terror but it is a different sort than what we speak of today. It is the terror of being disappeared, it is the terror of a menacing army who perceives that you are on the wrong side.

Didion lunches with Victor Barriere,the grandson of General Maximiliano Hernandez Martinez, former president of El Salvador whom Gabriel Garcia Marquez used as a model for his book The Autumn of the Patriarch. The grandson tells Didion:

"It was sometimes strange going to school with boys whose fathers my grandfather had ordered shot,"

Didion talks about how difficult it is to get accountable news in El Salvador. For each story there are dozens of variations. Everything is murky and obscure with and edge of danger permeating, nothing is clear. In this environment Didion feels that perhaps Gabriel Garcia Marquez could more aptly be labeled a social realist.

Didion has written this interesting slim volume that takes you back through time. It is indeed told from a certain perspective and bias, but for those interested in the time period it is still a valuble and interesting read.
Profile Image for Ian McHugh.
796 reviews4 followers
April 28, 2010
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) coverage of news within the country made me think that some things had not changed much in the nearly thirty years since publication.
The matter-of-fact reporting of some of the terrible murders that were occurring at the time, and the portraits given of the state of the bodies at their disposal, do still bring the true horror of the lawlessness of El Salvador to life. Of most poignancy was Didion's descriptions of her personal fears as she traveled across the country, and her musings on "high tea" in the serenity of the ambassador's garden.
As an insight into 21st Century El Salvador I do not think this provides much. However, as a provider of historical context for the reticence of many present day Salvadoran's to remain indoors after dark, it is invaluable and illuminating.
345 reviews5 followers
January 8, 2019
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 might have over interpreted how people felt or how much experiencing something helped her understand how people must feel. She doesn't seem to have talked much to the people around her. But most of her analysis of how things were seems legit.
Profile Image for Gwen Cummings.
66 reviews2 followers
December 10, 2019
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.
Profile Image for Les Aucoin.
40 reviews19 followers
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June 29, 2017
Evocative of the the government's barbarous menace at the time. And maybe again, now.
Profile Image for Amanda Bernal.
50 reviews3 followers
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March 1, 2021
Didion does an incredible job speaking to the feel of El Salvador in 1982. To note: this book is no substitute for the extensive historical and political analyses of the country. Great nonetheless!!
Profile Image for María Gisela.
150 reviews25 followers
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May 20, 2021
"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 men but an animal. That is why I say that despite differing points of view, we are none of us enemies"

If you only care about the way the book it’s written, then I can only say you will enjoy it. It’s great-Didion great, which makes it straight forward, poignant, sharp, personal yet removed. It is the story of El Salvador told by an American that only spent two weeks in the country, whose biases seep through the story. Whether that makes it good or bad, I don’t know, but it definitely doesn’t make it the truest more loyal telling of a story of war. Furthermore, I don’t think Didion, or anyone that takes a magnifying glass to Latin American politics, found la verdad. I don’t think any Latinos do either. But she, as always, made a fantastic effort. The subject matter is raw and hard hitting, maybe even nonesensical, and that’s exactly the way she tells it.

If you’re American yourself, then the commentary on American intervention is vital. Its hypocrisy it’s clear, it’s intentions of aiding the people and stopping human rights violations are exposed as untrue. At least in this story, at least through Didion’s eyes. It’s our job to discern how true this is. We’re lucky to have so much evidence to draw out conclusions from.

Now, you may continue for the personal crap.

I want to- I need to, know more about Latin America. I often feel isolated from this... place, I suppose you could call it, a place I’m supposed to call home. I categorize it with a simple brush stroke of how “we are all the same” knowing that, that same has never been a good thing in my eyes. I do find it funny that I’m getting my facts from Joan Didion, who couldn’t be more gringa, which is probably just further proof of neocolonialism or other sociological concepts I do not want to be confronted with.

It’s hard to be from a place where most of its recent history is tainted with violence and abuse. It’s hard to look back, not long enough to even remotely strain your neck, and find nothing but horror in your path. It’s made harder, I believe, by knowing that if you looked around now, you wouldn’t find anything that different.

“El generalismo es la solución”, the alcabalas, the “tactic of solving a problem by changing its name”, the lack of information, the conformity, the commonality of terror, the abuse and violence and the ways in which they’re ignored... I wonder if these are the things that are intrinsically Latin American, or if the only intrinsic thing is general bad luck and bad taste in politicians. Either way, it’s painful to read. It’s painful to see Venezuela’s today in El Salvador’s yesterday, and it’s painful to know that they’re both some other country’s tomorrow (if not already its today). It’s painful to be Latin American, to have so little hope, to learn to live with so little.

“The luxury of the long view” is the antonym of the Latin American way of living. We have only the terrible now and the terrible here, and maybe the terrible ways in which we can extend the now and the here a second longer. That’s all there is, that’s all we’re allowed to plan for. Yet, I found it interesting, the way Didion describes El Salvador’s remoteness from the rest of the world. Even today, even when it’s hard to focus on anything else but the now, but the here, but the problema, we’re so wrapped up in the outside, trying desperately hard to look elsewhere, anywhere but here. It makes sense, I suppose, that we remain as contradictory as ever.
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1 review
July 19, 2021
As an admirer of Joan Didion’s work, a literary journalist, and the daughter of Salvadoran refugees, this book has been at the top of my list for a while. My instinct was to rate this 5 stars. I was transfixed from the beginning and moved through the book quickly. Her prose is elegant, enchanting and intricate, yet seems somehow effortless.

But the more I thought about it, the more I realized I was letting style dictate my whole review. And the fact that I had never read anything like this, a book (or series of essays) about Salvadoran history from the perspectives of oligarchs, government officials and expats. I have done a lot of formal and informal research on the Salvadoran civil war, but was accustomed to the perspectives of refugees, villagers, guerrilleros and child soldiers. This was a window into the thinking of key players behind the scenes. It was a chilling read.

My main issue is that she lets those perspectives narrow her vision of El Salvador. El Salvador has had a string of corrupt, vicious, Machiavallian, willfully deceptive leaders. She interviews a lot of them, and it was obvious to me (though she won’t outright say it — she’ll just make YOU feel it) that she is disgusted by them. But then she takes this disgust and casts it all over El Salvador, as if these leaders are a reflection of a failed nomadic people without a deeply rooted Indigenous history, without any scientific achievements (or a talent for numbers!), without any native literary and cultural centers. Yes, this is all true, but she writes these observations as if they are the results of a hopeless people (implying that a hopeless war is the consequence of a hopeless people) and not the natural outcomes of a country devastated by psychopathic leadership.

Didion acknowledges that the Salvadoran government had driven a century-long campaign to destroy Indigenous people and culture. She is spot on about the facts: La Matanza of 1932 wiped out a whole generation of Indigenous people (the strategic terror of the civil war is part of its legacy, in my opinion). But she doesn’t develop any empathy from these facts. I know Didion is known for her cool, detached prose. The only emotions she expresses in the book are fear and disgust (reasonably so). Unfortunately, this fear and disgust is also projected onto regular Salvadorans, ignoring that they have been traumatized and culturally paralyzed by a recent genocide and the mass killings of the present (the very last remnants of Indigenous culture were destroyed during the civil war). She barely wrote about the citizens. She certainly didn’t talk to any of them.

I’ll give her the benefit of the doubt. She was terrified. She spoke to people with titles, people who could be held “accountable” if anything were to happen to her. People with records. It was probably safer that way. If she were caught interviewing locals, she might be seen as an enemy. Maybe she considered all of this. Also, Didion was a woman of her time. She was raised republican in a conservative part of California. I admired that she had the bravery to challenge the anti-communist narrative in El Salvador (which is now well-known in Central American scholarship, that the anti-communist stance was just bait for U.S. weapons and training).

I disagree that the book is entirely apolitical. Didion shows — doesn’t tell you what’s right or wrong — she shows you what’s happening, so you decide. I think this is an excellent and beautifully written book if you can keep everything I've said in mind, and if you supplement this reading with texts written by Salvadorans, those who survived the war and stayed in the country and are currently rebuilding it, and those who fled and have also helped rebuild the country from abroad.
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