by Daniel Loedel
reviewed by Hamilton Cain
Even those with a sense of its history might best recall Argentina as the setting for Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Evita. Unlike Webber’s Eva Perón, Thomas Shore, the protagonist of Daniel Loedel’s marvel of a literary debut, Hades, Argentina, has left the country at a moment of personal and political upheaval, shedding his identity and fleeing to the safety of New York. The fates of those who remain behind–the disappeared–fuel this elegant, courageous novel.
We meet Thomas (né Tomás Orilla) in 1986, ten years after his escape. A translator, he’s navigating a listless marriage with the aloof Claire. Part of him welcomes the summons back to his native country, where his mother’s old friend, Pichuca, is wasting away in a coma. Thomas has long carried a torch for Pichuca’s older daughter, Isabel, an adolescent friend with benefits, and, when he encounters Isabel in the hospital, he falls under her spell once again.
If Loedel’s plot sounds like high romance, it is … until it isn’t. He deftly navigates the underbelly of an oppressive regime where ghosts of the past mingle with survivors. Just being back in Buenos Aires isn’t enough for Thomas; he must delve deeper. With echoes of the Orpheus myth and Dante’s Inferno, he’s shepherded into the underworld by his own Virgil—the Colonel, a local official known for his atrocities. Witty, bombastic, a maestro of torture with secrets of his own, the Colonel is the novel’s richest character, both victim and villain. He alone can steer Thomas through the labyrinth in his own mind and aid Thomas in an ethereal rescue mission.
Loedel is at his best when he blurs the line between dreams and reckonings.
The train pulled into station at Constitución, and we got off with the rest of the crowd … The buzz of activity grew as we reached the main hall, then became a throb, the tall, arched ceiling amplifying the sound. The round patterns dotting it were more ornate than I remembered—shaped like the sun in the Argentine flag and containing small murals I couldn’t fully make out from below: military figures and men carrying crosses, haloed women … “I don’t recognize those,” I said to the Colonel, still gaping upward as bustling apparitions brushed by me. “I’m sure there will be much you don’t recognize here at first,” the Colonel said. “But don’t worry. This place, it recognizes you.”
Hades, Argentina was inspired by Loedel’s elder half-sister’s tragic story: in 1978 she was “disappeared” by the military dictatorship, and her bones were only recently recovered through DNA lab work. He masterfully treads a high wire between grisly crimes and playful magical realism, paying homage not only to the titans of Latin American literature but also to genre-bending tales such as Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad and Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West. The fantastical may be the only way of speaking the unspeakable, of excavating the horrors of the twentieth century. Loedel’s pace quickens as Thomas himself becomes a victim of torture: “The unwrapping of a cord, the methodical adjustment of the rheostat. I could hear each individual click of the knob and did the math: 14,000 volts was what they settled on. The low, droning thrum of the picana gliding ever nearer … The flailing of my limbs, the nerve-deep burning of my skin and my organs, like a wildfire inside me.”
It’s rare to find an accomplished first novel that moves boldly past coming-of-age conventions and sets the journeys of its characters in relief against a backdrop of grim history. As Loedel suggests, that history haunts us still. He reimagines the platitude “the personal is political” by injecting enchantment and morality into one man’s entanglements with forces aligned against him. Hades, Argentina announces a major career, and we can expect great work from this gifted writer in the future.
Published on February 22, 2021