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Daniel Loedel Releases Dark New Novel

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

As Daniel Loedel writes, there has been a cycle in Argentina of democracy, dictatorship, protests, democracy, dictatorship, protests. And so by the time a junta overthrew President Isabel Peron in 1976, those military officers resolved not to fall to protests and ushered in a dark and bloody period in Argentine history. That's where Daniel Loedel sets his new novel called "Hades, Argentina." And he joins us now to talk about it.

Thank you so much for being with us today.

DANIEL LOEDEL: Thank you so much for having me.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So dark and bloody barely begins to describe the lengths the junta went to in order not to fall. I mean, they disappeared dissidents. There was torture, the kidnapping of children. It lasted nearly seven years. What about life in Argentina during that period made you want to set the novel there and then?

LOEDEL: In some ways, it wasn't really a choice at all in the sense that my half-sister named Isabel was disappeared by this junta in 1978, and she was engaged in fighting the dictatorship. And in wanting to understand her life, as well as her death, the more I came to learn about this moment in time, the more I saw how complicated it was and how easily it was for very ordinary people, especially young people, to get involved in this huge ethical morass.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Why did you decide, then, to put it in a novel form? - because your main character, Tomas, is - you know, it's a different vehicle - right? - for something like this.

LOEDEL: Yes, definitely. Partly that was because I never knew my sister. So in a way, I was imagining her from even when I was a kid. I was creating her as much as I was being told what she was like. She was always sort of a fictionalization, in some ways, in my head. And I wanted to tell a story not only about what it was like to battle this dictatorship but what it was like to survive it and to live with the very complicated emotions that are borne out by simply surviving and witnessing such horrible trauma. And Tomas was sort of my way into this experience.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So he's just a student. He ends up working at a detention center called Automotores. He tries to stay out of the politics of that era. What happens at Automotores?

LOEDEL: So Tomas falls in love with this woman named Isabel, who is in the resistance, and she asks him to go undercover at this torture center. And more so really out of love for Isabel and a desire to get close to her than necessarily for his own feelings about the political cause, he agrees to do so. And on the one hand, he is given the opportunity to help, to report information, to help the resistance. But on the other hand, he's then forced to be complicit in the torture itself. And he begins to lose his sense of self, to lose his understanding of which side of good and evil he is on.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I want you to read a passage here. You give a remarkable passage to a priest in your book.

LOEDEL: (Reading) Peron with all his young women after Evita died, all those internal squabbles among the armed forces. Everything seemed so petty. But then, he continued, shifting tone with the practiced cadence of an orator, with Castro in Cuba and Allende in Chile and the communists defeating the Americans in Vietnam and all these terrorists attacking officers, suddenly, the fight felt so much larger to me. Argentina was threatened. Democracy was threatened, Western values, Christianity. Since the Second World War, it's been in retreat. And, well, here we are. He breathed deeply, taking in the torture room with pride. It's important to keep the bigger picture in mind, my son.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You are giving voice to essentially the people who ended up killing your sister. What did you want to say with that?

LOEDEL: Yeah, I felt it was really important in telling this story to understand that while there are evil people in this world, the vast majority of evil, in my opinion, is done by people who really think themselves to be acting in the service of some greater good. We see that every day today in America, I would argue.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I was about to ask how what happened in Argentina might hold lessons to what is happening here in the United States.

LOEDEL: Yeah. So for so long, even until I'd say very recently, people sort of have felt that things like political oppression, people in cages, whatever, belong to the Third World. But I have always felt, I think, because of being half-Argentine, having this family history, doing this research for this book, that the appetite to seize power is not something belonging just to the Third World, just to Latin America, but to people everywhere.

And in Argentina, there were many cycles of attempted coups, protests, civil strife before the dictatorship really became its worst incarnation in the '70s. It was basically a - you could argue a 30- or 50-year process. And in watching the way the last few years have unfolded, you know, I see the door opening a little bit here, and it's very scary on a political basis but also on a personal basis for that reason.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's Daniel Loedel. His novel is "Hades, Argentina."

Thank you very much.

LOEDEL: Thank you so much, Lulu. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.