An Argentinian Underworld Haunted by the Ghosts of the Disappeared
Daniel Loedel’s debut novel "Hades, Argentina" makes literal the hell of political oppression and public amnesia
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In Daniel Loedel’s haunting debut novel Hades, Argentina, Tomás Orilla returns to Buenos Aires—“a city made for forgetting as much for nostalgia”—ten years after fleeing the military dictatorship whose regime disappeared upwards of 30,000 thousand political opponents, including Isabel Aroztegui, the love of Tomas’s life.
This contradictory struggle—between the heavy burden of memory and an urge to sever oneself from the past—animates this powerful, evocative, and intelligent novel.
The Argentina that Tomás returns to in 1986 is a country that has dedicated itself to a collective amnesia with respect to the political violence that seized it from 1976-1983. The Full Stop Law passed in 1986 ended the prosecution and investigation of those accused of political violence during the Dirty War. As such, the victims of the military junta had to go “about their daily lives with the possibility of bumping into their torturers at train stations and random intersections or having to wonder, because they’d been blindfolded back then, if the man giving them a funny look on the bus had raped them.”
The country rushes to forget; the individual is saddled by memory.
Such is the case with Tomás. He has been living in a purgatorial state for the past decade, numbed by guilt and shame for his own actions during the military junta. These actions and the choices and the conditions that guided them are what immediately awaits him upon his return to Argentina. There, he accepts the invitation to travel to the underworld—Hades, Argentina—to attempt to rescue Isabel. To get to her, though, he must first confront his mistakes and regrets and his own complicity in the face of state-sanctioned atrocities, all of which contributed to Isabel’s death.
As with so many conversations these days, Daniel Loedel and I conducted ours on Zoom, sipping Argentine wine on a weekday afternoon.
Julian Zabalbeascoa: You dedicated this novel to your half-sister Isabel, who was disappeared by the junta when she was 22-years old. How long had you been trying or wanting to tell this story?
Daniel Loedel: Not as long as you might expect. Partly because growing up, she was not talked about very much in my house, both because she was obviously such a painful topic for my father, but also because the silence the dictatorship pushed on people inevitably gets internalized. So there was a lot of silence around it for most of my life growing up, and it was a very slow process of discovering that I needed to know more about her and that her story was one I needed to tell.
When someone who you never knew—or even someone you did know—was killed in that way, in that unjust kind of way, you have a tendency in fiction to idealize the person, to write them as a hero, as someone sort of pure who an unjust world removed from it. And, yeah, Isabel was heroic in her way. She was very brave, very determined, very morally passionate. But she was not perfect, and she was not pure. It wasn’t until I came to terms with that and tried to write her as a real human being, with all of the faults that come with being human, that I could finally tell her story. The other part of it was that for a long time I was interested in particular in her impact on my father. I grew up with a father who had suffered grief for the entirety of my knowing him, so the story wasn’t yet Isabel’s. It took me so long to really look at it directly, to look at her life directly.
JZ: Having interred Isabel’s remains in 2019 and now publishing this novel in 2021, has that changed your relationship to your idea of Isabel?
DL: Interring her remains is the biggest thing that changed my relationship to Isabel. I had a lot of fear in writing this book that I was a fraud, that I was plundering her tragic life and death for a story, for an effort at art. That in a world with this much art and social duress this book may not be necessary. Was it selfish? Was I really trying to memorialize her or was I just stealing her story? And I really struggled with that for a long time.
That slowly started to change when I was doing the research and talking to people who knew her, who hadn’t had a chance to talk about her in years. You could tell they opened up. They felt this sense of—not of relief or of being unburdened—but that there’s this pain inside them and they haven’t been giving access to it, voice to it. So it began there.
I started to feel less of a fraud on a trip to Argentina in 2017 when I started to talk to people. [On that trip], I connected with her partner’s brother. He was very instrumental in both the research and in interring Isabel’s remains. And he was so glad to hear from me, because no one on the Loedel side of the family had been at the internment of his brother’s remains in 2013. I was just shocked that people were so glad to finally have a chance to talk about all of this. So that was one part that was helpful. But the actual interment ceremony was sort of the apex of that. So many more people came than I thought would. My father and brother didn’t. It was still too close for them, and there were other logistical complications. But Isabel’s childhood nanny was there, crying. People who didn’t know her were there. There was this sense of urgency of recognizing what had happened to her, recognizing not only her death, but also her life. Of saying what a wonderful person she had been. There’s also that: when you only talk about someone in the tragic terms of their demise, you don’t get to appreciate that she was funny or that she was a good friend. So that moment really made me feel less of a fraud in my relationship to Isabel and therefore less of a fraud in continuing with the effort of the book and putting this out, this kind of tribute to her. It’s not just a tribute. It’s also art, it’s fiction, whatever. But it certainly wouldn’t have been written without her. I felt a lot cleaner, morally. And now that it’s out in the world, to see people engaging with what someone like Isabel’s life and death means has been extremely rewarding.
JZ: Talk about the silence that the victims or their loved ones had to internalize as a result of the dictatorship. In which ways did you inherit that silence and in which ways was this book perhaps a creative response to that?
DL: In every way. Unlike, for instance, the Nazis in World War II who were defeated, the military dictatorship in Argentina essentially won. In the sense that, yes, the dictatorship lasted seven years and the junta leaders were put on trial, but the major players in this, the vast majority of them—all the subordinates—were basically given immunity pretty quickly, and they continued to live in society. The resistance, of which my sister was a part, was not only defeated but crushed. There were no remnants really of the Montoneros in Argentina.
Especially with the type of oppression that the junta used—of disappearance—it also meant people who had lost loved ones often maintained their silence in the hope of getting their loved ones back. So you have this huge combination of factors that winds up meaning that grief and injustice are not really processed, for a very long time. It’s sort of cast to the side.
There’s a shame that comes about for people who, like my family, lost someone who was engaging in the fight. The shame that is both brought on by their own guilt in preventing her from fighting and therefore dying; and a shame in just her choice to literally fight. My sister took up arms against the regime, and, you know, there can be a sense of why didn’t she try to fight back peacefully? If she fought back peacefully, she would have also died. But that shame was a part of it, too. I grew up in a household and in a family, sort of a familial universe let’s say, that had a ton of guilt and shame and denial about what had happened, why it had happened.
JZ: Hades, Argentina sent me around my bookshelves, and, at one point, to Patrick Radden Keefe’s Say Nothing. In it, he writes:
“Dating back to the Iliad, ancient Egypt and beyond, burial rites have formed a critical function in most human societies. Whether we cremate a loved one or inter her bones, humans possess a deep-set instinct to mark death in some deliberate, ceremonial fashion. Perhaps the cruelest feature of forced disappearance as an instrument of war is that it denies the bereaved any such closure, relegating them to a permanent limbo of uncertainty. ‘You cannot mourn someone who has not died,’ the Argentine-Chilean writer Ariel Dorfman once observed.”
DL: Yes, when someone has disappeared and there’s no funeral and there’s not an openness about the death, I think that is inevitably part of it. Even in the case of my family that knew how she was killed. Isabel’s mother basically figured out the address in which Isabel had been living in hiding. She went to the house, saw that there were bullet holes in the wall, spoke to the landlady who came out wearing a dress of Isabel’s, and she knew what had happened.
Even with that knowledge, the fact that the rights of mourning were taken away means that there is an incompleteness to that death. You know, we finally interred Isabel’s remains in 2019. It was a very long, protracted, and emotionally complicated experience for my family. I don’t know to what extent notions of closing wounds when you bury someone are true. I know that it is impossible to close wounds unless you do bury someone in some way, unless you memorialize them. My father would probably say that even having interred Isabel’s remains 40 years later, the wound is not closed for him. But for other people who were at that ceremony, it might be a little more closed
And to tie it to the book, I would say that that sense of incompleteness that comes from disappearance—from not having a memorial, from not celebrating a life as it was lived—means that you are forced to look at the past and wish you could change it, to hunt for a ghost as Tomás does in the story. And even with the knowledge of what happened, even when you know what happened, you still feel, I think, that incompleteness, and you search in futile ways to complete a mourning process that is sort of derailed.
JZ: One of the things I really admire about your novel is how for most of your characters—regardless of the horrendous historic moment they’re living through—their lives in all their ordinariness continue. It’s not hard to imagine, decades from now, our children and grandchildren looking at pictures of us and saying, “Wait, so Trump was president, a national reckoning of systemic and structural racism was taking place, a once-in-a-century plague was decimating the country, insurrectionists were attempting to overthrow an election, and you still went to the lake that weekend?”
DL: I might have, until 2020, answered this a little differently. I might have said that I felt that this was a very Argentinian phenomenon born out of the fact that they were somewhat uniquely used to military coups and things like that. Not to the extent that the dictatorship of ’76 presented itself, the extent to which it was truly horrific, but when the coup happened there was—to some people anyway—a bit of a shrug of the shoulders, like it’s about time, “We knew this was going to happen.” So it was easy in some ways for people to keep living. And, of course, a lot of the oppression, the torture, the deaths, were happening semi-secretly in Argentina behind closed doors. So some people could easily go on living without awareness of what was happening.
But 2020 does shine an interesting light on this, which is that I think people inevitably reset to normal. No matter what is happening around them. Or they try to figure out a way—whether they’re fighting a regime, fighting systemic racism—to still have some sort of fun or a connection with their family or friends or whatever it may be. I also think that it’s from those banal efforts to have fun and just have a nice dinner with your family or whatever that a lot of that kind of oppression and horror can happen in a society so long without much focus on it.
In Argentina, a lot of these torturers—a lot of the people participating in political oppression—were family people. They went home to their wives and kids after a long day of literally torturing people. Some of them, I’m sure, were very loved by their families. It makes you wonder, of course, if that is exactly how things like this happen, which is to say that people with very normal lives can still go on doing terrible things just because they have normal lives. That they enjoy red wine or meat or whatever does not mean that they are not incapable of horrors.
JZ: They’re as much of the landscape as perhaps the torture centers. The novel had me googling various Argentinian torture centers, and what struck me about them was how terrifyingly mundane they were. For Automotores Orletti, it’s not an elaborate nightmare dreamed up by some fevered sadist but simply an old mechanic shop in a residential neighborhood. You’d walk right past it unless you knew to be looking for it. Yet, behind those walls, terrible things were occurring.
DL: Yeah, I think that it’s both a wonderful thing and a terrible thing, the degree to which human beings can get used to anything and acclimate themselves to realities. It’s a great thing in terms of our ability to endure shutdowns during a global pandemic. It’s a horrible thing in terms of what you’re talking about which is people’s ability to either just walk past systemic racism in the U.S. or to walk past what they may know is a torture center in an old mechanic shop, as they bring their kids to school. I think the ability to readjust one’s eyes to whatever is before them is surprisingly powerful and resilient and sometimes for the best, but sometimes definitely not.
JZ: So your book came out less than a week after the insurrection. You’ve got that line. “There was always going to be a coup. This is Argentina.” This is Trump, there was always going to be an attempt at a coup.
DL: I started writing this book in earnest after Trump was elected. I remember when Trump was elected, my father said to me that he remembered when Peron won in a sort of strange election in the ’40s. Peron was definitely different from Trump in many ways but certainly had some overlap. My father basically said that you felt the door had been opened back in the ’40s. Hades has a lot about what happens when you have one oppressive politician, followed by another, followed by then a coup. These cycles begin to entrench themselves and become normalized. And that’s a slow process that can take 30-plus years, but it gets worse and worse until you end up with a dictatorship like the one that they had in the ’70s. So when Trump got elected, my father said it felt the same way: the door’s been opened. Trump may not be the one who murdered, but down the road there could be another Trump who could get either elected or not elected who could murder thousands. The impulse is there because we are humans, and that impulse was given voice and acceptance by Trump in a way that had not happened before in the U.S. So it made perfect sense in a way that the culmination of his presidency was the literal manifestation of that voice, of a coup attempt.
JZ: There’s a long literary tradition of the map of the afterworld mirroring the national borders of the living. My current favorite example is that episode of The Sopranos where Christopher Maltisanti returns from a near-death experience to report, in a traumatized state, that hell is playing cards in an Irish pub where the Irish win every hand. In your Argentinian Hades, the occasional Uruguayan or Brazilian might wander in, but otherwise it’s a strictly Argentinian affair. How did you go about constructing the map of Hades?
DL: Well, for me, the concept of Hades was governed primarily by the concept of the greatest pains you could ever experience or that you did experience in your life, whether that means the pains of what you actually endured or the pains of what you didn’t get to do, you didn’t get to enjoy. It’s sort of similar, right? Clearly Christopher Maltisanti has been in an Irish bar. True pain for people is not fire and brimstone, it’s the wrong choices they made in life. That is, I think, the thing that is most painful for people. I do think that is sort of where the greatest emotional and psychic pain can come from. It’s like looking at your life very closely.
JZ: Exactly. I saw the book as this really exciting take on the idea of eternal recurrence. If you chose well through your life, it’s going to be a pleasure trip, but if you haven’t, as for Tomás, you’re damned to revisit and repeat your worst mistakes. There are these lines from the book: “Is this all hell is, just your life again?” And then, “You’re never done wondering here.” They can wonder, but they can no longer act because they’re defined by the decisions that they took while they were alive.
DL: This also sort of ties into my personal background in the sense that my father is haunted by regret about what he could have done to save Isabel. Maybe he couldn’t have done anything, but that regret will always haunt him, and he will always relive the choices he believes he made incorrectly. It’s not just true of my father but of many others. I do think that the greatest torment a person can experience is that of a life lived wrong, a life lived incorrectly. Whether that means immorally and having to confront those immoral actions or just making the wrong decisions in a more casual, practical way and seeing your life go off on the wrong track and having to live with that forever is horrible. Conversely, I will say, though, that in reflecting all those choices that seem wrong and that you would do over again, I hope that something the book can show you is that maybe if you relived your life, it actually turns out you made more right choices than you thought you did, more choices that you had to make the way you did.
I don’t know if this is a spoiler, but later in the book the character of the Priest basically tells Tomás:
“In reality, all these things you did that you’ve been haunted by, you really would have done them all again and there’s only one decision that you would have done over differently.”
I think as humans we’re tormented both by the fact that we could have chosen differently and by the fact that we might not have even if given the choice. But I think if we can learn to embrace the latter, we will perhaps be a little better off.