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Reckoning With Ghosts in Argentina

By Aislyn Greene

May 17, 2021

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The Recoleta Cemetery in Buenos Aires where crucial scenes from the new novel “Hades, Argentina” were set.

Photo by RPBaiao/Shutterstock

The Recoleta Cemetery in Buenos Aires where crucial scenes from the new novel “Hades, Argentina” were set.

Author Daniel Loedel on grappling with the past, writing his debut novel “Hades, Argentina,” and making sense of the joy and sadness woven into life in Buenos Aires.

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Hades, Argentina reads almost like a dream—or, rather, a nightmare: It opens with translator Tomás Orilla traveling back home to Argentina, eight years after hiding out in the United States. But within three pages, it becomes clear that Tomás’s return will stretch far beyond the physical realm. “I must have had at least a hunch that the borders I’d cross on this journey weren’t the standard ones,” he reveals.

The novel—our April AFAReads selectionis set in the Buenos Aires of the late 1970s and early ’80s, during Argentina’s so-called Dirty War, the grisly seven years following the military coup that ousted president Isabel Perón. During that time, as many as 30,000 people were held and tortured in detention centers and ultimately “disappeared,” the word used for those killed during that time. Also included were those who identified as Montoneros, a left-wing guerilla group. The novel traces the brutal events of those years—and was inspired by Loedel’s own half-sister, Isabel, “a Montonera who was disappeared on January 17, 1978, at the age of twenty-two,” writes Loedel. 

Loedel, a book editor, was born in New York to an American mother and an Argentine father—and didn’t set foot in Argentina until 2010, when he moved there at age 22 to explore his roots. Hades, Argentina, released in January 2021, is, in part, his attempt to make sense of his own history—and that of Argentina. 

Following grand South American literary tradition, Loedel quickly drops in hints of the surrealism to come. The mysterious appearance of Tomás’s first love, Isabel; items connected to his past popping up unexpectedly; and finally and most obviously, his mentor and friend, the Colonel, appearing in the Recoleta Cemetery speaking “as he had in life.” A ghost of sorts, one who will take Tomás on a journey to the Underworld—and offer an opportunity to undo the wrongs of his past.

We sat down with Loedel to discuss detention centers, chasing the ghost of his half-sister, Buenos Aires history, and much more. 

Buy now: Hades, Argentina; bookshop.org

This novel is infused with ghosts and magical realism. Did you consciously choose this approach, or did it just come to you as you wrote? 

I tried for a while to write a realist version of Tomás’s year in 1976: falling in love with Isabel, then being asked to join the resistance, then being asked to spy for her at Automotores Orletti, this torture center. But it didn’t feel true to me, to my emotional experience. I felt a need to tap into what I knew, and that was growing up with a father who felt a lot of guilt and loss around the fact that he had lost his daughter to all of this.

My own experience was growing up with the sense of a ghost, of someone disappeared. When we talk about those in Argentina killed in the dictatorship, we don’t usually say the word “killed,” we say the word “disappeared” because they were often either dropped at sea or they were buried in common graves. There were no memorials, there was no documentation of their death. Even if people sort of know what happens in a family, that sense of disappearance still hovers over you, that ghost that’s left when you don’t actually commemorate the dead.

This story was both an effort to do that commemoration of someone who had never had that and was also me grappling with this presence that hovered over me. I was trying to write a realist novel and failed, failed, failed, and then one day had an epiphany: that it’s the story of Tomás reliving [his past] through a journey into the underworld, searching for a ghost. I knew immediately that that was right, that it would allow me to tell the story the way I wanted to.

How much did you know about that seven-year period of the Dirty War before you sat down to write and research?

I found things out in fragments growing up. At first, my impression was that [my half-sister] Isabel had been just a youthful political activist. I had this impression that she was killed for tagging walls or handing out pamphlets—and many, many people, unfortunately, were killed during the dictatorship for doing just that. But it wasn’t really talked about in my home. Not because it was hidden from me, but because it was painful. I think picked up on that [pain] even as a kid, so I didn’t really ask. 

As time went on, I got more curious and I started to pick up on more things. I learned well before I started writing this novel that Isabel was more involved in the resistance. At first, I tried writing short stories. I wrote my college essay about Isabel. Each of these floundering efforts at putting her down on paper gave me more information about, not just her, but about that period.

It wasn’t until I sat down to write Hades, Argentina that I started to learn much more about what actually happened, about the nature of these detention centers. Part of it was that a lot of these things also remained hidden from view for a long time because in Argentina the reconciliation process was very long, very drawn out. The military was not exactly defeated. The junta leaders were put in prison, but the people who did a lot of these terrible things were still allowed to walk around and so that silence became pervasive, in some ways, in the culture. 


Were any of your characters, aside from Isabel, based on real people? 

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Yes, many of the torturers at Automotores in the novel are modeled loosely on actual torturers during the dictatorship. [The character of Aníbal was based on] this grotesque, horrible man named Aníbal Gordon, [who] was the actual head of Automotores Orletti. Rubio, this young, kind of beautiful torturer was inspired by a real guy named Alfredo Astiz, called the “Blond Angel of Death.” Even the priest at Automotores is a combination of a couple of torturers. There was an actual priest in Buenos Aires who participated in these kinds of acts. 

The only exception: There’s a very prominent character called the Colonel who is Tomás’s friend and mentor. [He’s] this eccentric, whiskey-loving, wisdom-spouting guy who is the reason Tomás ends up working at this torture center. The Colonel is also Tomás’s guide to the Underworld, sort of like Virgil to Dante. The colonel is not based on anyone—he is my own strange invention. 

You didn’t visit Argentina until you were an adult. Why not? 

I grew up going to Uruguay when I was young because I had a lot of family in Uruguay and I had very little family in Argentina. Part of that was due to the dictatorship and the pain—my brother fled Argentina in ’77—part of that was more coincidence. My father never felt a need to show me Argentina. He didn’t have great associations with it because of what happened.

And then I graduated college and was like, “How can it be that I’ve never seen this place that I identify with strongly, particularly given that my sister was killed fighting for this country?” I would always cheer for Argentina in the World Cup, or for Argentine tennis players. The culture had so infiltrated me, but I had never lived it, so after I graduated I moved there for little less than a year and got to know Buenos Aires on my own.

Today, it’s probably the city I know best, second to New York, where I live. And it became a city of huge importance to me. It wasn’t like I found myself there, exactly, because things aren’t always as clean-cut as that. But it’s a place that I’ve developed love for and now have my own relationship with, independent of my father. 

Author Daniel Loedel visited Argentina for the first time at age 22.

How would you characterize your relationship with the country now? 

These days, I don’t get to go back because of the pandemic, unfortunately. But Buenos Aires is a place of, I think, huge contradictions. It’s such a fun place. People party until sunrise, and they love going out to dinners for hours and having red meat and wine. It has always been interesting to me that—Buenos Aires in particular, and maybe Argentina as a whole—there’s such a current of joy in the place and also such a deep undercurrent of sadness. These pains that are hidden beneath the surface of what is such a beautiful city. It’s one of the places I can feel most deeply. Walking around Buenos Aires, I feel those contradictions. Every emotion feels heightened for me in a way. 

When did you decide to write the novel? 

When I first moved there in 2010, I had no intention of writing a novel about Isabel or Argentina. I didn’t look into her life there at all. I was even invited to see a detention center while I was there, one that had opened to the public and I didn’t want to. I guess I had internalized some of the fear around that. It was on the back burner, sort of simmering while I was there.

My father had a health scare in 2017 and that was the moment I decided to really take a stab at this. This is a book about wounds, and I think it is, in some ways, an attempt to heal those wounds. For Tomás the character, it is. I don’t know if the book [was successful at healing those wounds], but it did leave some things. As I said, Isabel had been disappeared. She was not memorialized until 2019, and that process began, in part, because of the book, because I started digging into all of this. And [my father] turned out to be fine, so all is well. 

Once a torture center, ESMA is now the Memorial Museum, which promotes and defends human rights.

What current sites in Buenos Aires can you recommend visiting to better understand this era of the country? 

I think you have to have somewhat of a strong stomach, but the ESMA [now the Memorial Museum], the naval academy that was also a detention center, is the most famous one in Buenos Aires. It’s now a big, sprawling memorial site. You can go there and see, not only the detention center, but also some of the other buildings and the efforts to reconcile with this history. ESMA looks like Harvard: There are big white pillars, it’s in a big park and it’s right off the main avenue in Buenos Aires, Avenida del Libertador.

It gives you this sense of what the dictatorship was like because you have this beautiful place right in the heart of the city that secretly (and not so secretly, depending on who you talked to) was torturing people and killing people. It tells you what was happening in plain sight.

I would also say going to the Casa Rosada, which is the equivalent of the White House in Buenos Aires. There’s a big plaza in front of it where protests were always happening. During the dictatorship, the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, who wore white kerchiefs when their children or grandchildren were taken, walked around in silence. That’s still happening—people still go. There are still protests there and still things saying nunca más, “never again”—people trying to keep in mind the memory of this dictatorship.

What’s one of the most enduring experiences of yours in Argentina that found its way into the novel? 

Walking. I spent a lot of time in Buenos Aires just walking. It’s not really a walking city—it’s not like Paris or New York, it’s more sprawling—but I would walk anyway because I found it beautiful. The neighborhoods change so much from one to the next. Tomás, in the novel, at dark moments spends a lot of his time walking. [It’s] sort of his way of trying to heal, to think, or to not think, depending.

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All of those walks and what I saw on those walks is the main experience that made it into the novel. That and my visits to the actual Automotores Orletti, which is a real place and in some ways, more than [ESMA], was really powerful to me. [Automotores Orletti] is right next to a school and in a random dreary location that showed me, more than anything in my life, that evil can be sort of banal. It’s just this converted automobile mechanics shop and it was not organized, it was chaotic, it was dirty—it was sort of absurd as a place.

It’s open to the public? 

Yes. I think you have to set up a tour to see it. It’s a little different from the ESMA, which you can just walk in and explore. In terms of the work of memorializing, it’s sort of interesting. The economy in Argentina is often in shambles, as it is right now. And the last time I was [at Automotores], they had laid off the tour guide who had first showed me around, who knew everything about it. [On my most recent trip] it was strange to know more than my tour guide. 

What was the significance of setting some of the novel in the Recoleta Cemetery?

When I lived in Buenos Aires, it was a place that I found oddly majestic and beautiful. I would go there on a lot of walks, around those crypts. Maybe that tells you something about my morbid sensibility or what I was doing in Buenos Aires, reckoning with ghosts. I think I internalized the strange beauty of these tombs and of these memorials and, in some ways, Hades may be that: trying to turn death into something beautiful, into a beautiful set of memorials and tombs. 

Signs around Buenos Aires proclaim nunca más, or “never again.”

What do you think leaders can do to heal a country after political upheaval? 

It’s really hard. I think it begins with the truth and accountability. In Argentina, the truth was definitely accomplished. There was a huge report on everything that happened, the Nunca Más Report that outlined the processes that the dictatorship engaged. That [report] has made everyone aware and fight against something like this happening again.

The accountability part is crucial as well, and I think that’s the part that most countries get wrong, including [the United States]. The reason I think it’s really important: In Argentina, a lot of the people who did this were not held accountable, therefore I think a lot of citizens lived either in fear, or [had] a vague sense that the military still had power, still had control in the background. There were murmurs of a coup in the early ’90s that didn’t take place, but I think there’s this sense that the people are not in control of their government, or they cannot assume that corruption or immorality within the government will be punished and therefore they assume, rightly, that people can get away with doing those things. 

In the U.S., we’re dealing with a little of that these days. I think without accountability it’s really hard to do the second part of the healing and rebuilding—[people just don’t have] faith in the future, that the government will get it right the next go-around, and why would they? 

Do you think that accountability will come? 

It’s still happening. When I was there most recently in 2019, there was a trial going on for someone who had been a torturer at the [detention center] Olimpo,  which is 40 years after it happened. I think a lot of progress has been made, but I think the act of memorializing and the act of holding people accountable is constant work. You cannot just assume that people have moved on. 

Why didn’t you tell the story from Isabel’s perspective? 

Like my floundering effort to tell a realist version of this story, I did consider—not writing it solely from Isabel’s perspective—but having Isabel’s perspective in there. I didn’t know how. Isabel remains, to this day, a ghost and I tried to bring a character based on her to life as much as I could, but I didn’t know her, I could only compile her from other people’s stories. I will never, sadly, be told by her what she thought or felt, and I think it felt really hard to give myself permission to imagine her perspective. I ultimately couldn’t do it.

As to why Tomás is the narrator, I think he’s a vehicle for me—for the emotions I knew best, whether they were my father’s or my own. Also I think Tomás, more than Isabel, speaks to what’s at the heart of this novel, which is that Isabel was someone who was determined to fight to the very last minute. Both the real Isabel and the Isabel in the story are people who got involved in the cause through this deep belief, this conviction that they would never stop fighting for.

Tomás is more like most people, who see injustice, want to fight it, may get involved for personal reasons, and may get in over their heads. That happens to Tomás and I think that’s what happens to most people in these situations. When “ordinary people” end up in these extraordinary circumstances, I think that’s the common tale of living under oppression. 

Why did you take Tomás on this journey of good and evil, where you’re left wrestling with those questions? He saves lives but he also takes lives, even if indirectly. 

Going back to what I said about the banality of evil, I think that evil and oppression are not done by exclusively evil people. I think that a lot of the people who participated in these things think themselves good and moral. The torturers in the story and in real life were family men who believed themselves to be doing good things.

Only if we understand that we ourselves are capable of being on the wrong side of ethical divides and historical questions can we seek to rectify them. That’s why Tomás is in this sort of constant wrestling with what is good and what is evil, because usually in life the choices aren’t simple and it’s hard to make the right ones.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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