Daniel Loedel on ghost stories, love stories, and searches after the 70s Argentine dictatorship.

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Daniel – thanks so much for talking to me, and for writing a book I love, Hades, Argentina. I’ve spoken to a few writers of “ghost stories” recently, for PEN Transmissions – the Trinidadian novelist Ayanna Lloyd-Banwo and Sri Lankan author Shehan Karunatilaka, the latter who has an amusing anecdote about thinking he couldn’t win the Booker with The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida after George Saunders won the 2017 Prize with his ghostly book, Lincoln in the Bardo. Argentine literature has a long record of high-literary ghost stories, with Mariana Enriquez’s Our Share of the Night a recent major entry. All this is context for my first two questions: is Hades, Argentina a ghost story? And did you have a similar crowded feeling to Shehan when Mariana’s novel came out?

Thanks so much for the extremely kind words, Will, and for inviting me to talk about Hades as a part of a series which I admire greatly. It’s an honour. As for your first question, yes, I would say Hades is a ghost story. Though to me that’s as broad a category as “mystery” or “fantasy” or “magical realism” or any number of other categories, and so I feel there’s a lot of room under the umbrella for all of us, so to speak. Sometimes I bristle at the urge for literary categorisation, the pigeon-holing that can happen when Argentine or Latin American writers are lumped together, because I feel that the traditions that have influenced me are much messier and more convoluted than that, particularly being the child of an immigrant to the US. But then, what did I expect, choosing a title like Hades, Argentina? On the flipside, the Argentine literary tradition is profoundly rich and extraordinary, so I’m also very proud to be considered in conversation with writers like Mariana Enriquez at all. My hope is that it’s more of a rising-tide-lifts-all-boats kind of thing.

You’re an editor, and as I read Hades, Argentina I felt it had an editor’s prose (I mean that as a big compliment – it’s spare yet rich, with sentences that feel as though they have the right words, and the right number of them, in the right order, adding up to that elusive phrase “word-perfect”). Did you take off your editor’s hat when you wrote the book, or did you consciously keep it on?

If only it were “word-perfect”! And if only I could have taken my editor’s hat off a bit more. In the beginning of the writing process, the first year or so, I was able to do so – to write freely, without second-guessing my choices, coming close to that inspired-artist-writing-in-a-trance cliché. After that, the editor in me arrived in full force. It was useful in that, as an editor, I know how much possibility for true creativity there is in revision; the prospect of rewriting the whole last third of the book, say, scared me much less than it might have another author, having guided my own authors through such revisions. But an editor is focused during revision primarily on what isn’t working in a text, and this critical voice can be pretty annoying when you’re trying to let the proverbial creative juices flow. Also, an editor needs to keep market considerations on their mind, and a literary writer really should not! So it was a double-edged sword.

Could you talk about your family history, as much as you’d like to?

My half-sister, Isabel, whose name I borrowed for one of the main characters of the novel, was a Montonera, a fighter in the resistance to the Argentine dictatorship of the 70s. She was disappeared – that is, murdered – in January 1978. I never met her. But growing up I felt her presence in my home like a ghost: her absence was palpable. She was not spoken of, except obliquely and in the vague, hushed tones of grief. It took many years – decades, even – for me to learn the full story of what happened to her. The novel’s emotional arc mirrors my own, in that sense. Tomás goes into the underworld of memory hoping to recover the ghost of Isabel, and I was doing the same thing right up to the point that I finished the book – hunting after her ghost, trying to restore her to historical memory. As a disappeared victim of the regime, she’d had no funeral or official recognition. Until 2019, when working with forensic anthropologists, we finally identified her remains and had a memorial for her, 41 years after her death. It happened right alongside my finishing the book. And the two searches became so intertwined for me that I no longer know how to separate them, really.

Would you say Hades is funny, despite it all? (I would.)

Ha – thank you. I would say the character of the Colonel is funny. He is Tomás’s guide through the underworld and his most harrowing memories, and he has a wry edge to his counsel that I think/hope is funny, yes. I loved writing him. But now I almost wonder where the Colonel came from. I am not a naturally funny writer, by any means, so it feels like I got lucky finding this character who walked onto this literal hellscape of a book and punched it up with jokes. I’m not sure what its readers (or its writer) would have done without him.

I’m going to do a bit of cynical organisational crowbarring, here, if that’s OK. One of the things that made me want to set up this interview, in this frame, was how much of Hades, Argentina speaks to PEN’s work: the confluence of literature and human rights; language, and movements between languages (Tomás is a translator, in several ways); censorship and freedom; or, in the broadest senses, how art, politics and activism touch each other. And so with this in mind, for you, what do the freedom to write and the freedom to read mean, and how do they – if they do – speak to the novel?

Something I don’t highlight enough about my novel is that it’s basically the story of a political refugee. Tomás escapes Buenos Aires for New York, where, yes, he becomes a translator and tells the story of the physical and spiritual borders that he has crossed. So in a sense his whole narrative is representative of PEN’s goals – or I hope they are, anyway. And of course more broadly speaking, the novel is about combatting political oppression, and as the character of Isabel points out at one point, upon building a small, clandestine printing press, the key to doing so is writing.

I started by asking if Hades, Argentina was a ghost story. I’ll now ask: is it a love story?

Yes! And here I have to pull out that David Foster Wallace quote, ‘Every love story is a ghost story’. Though my version of it would probably be: ‘Every ghost story is a love story’. Ghosts are beings who cannot let go of the world or whom the world cannot let go – what drives that, if not love? In this case, though, the love story aspect is also less abstract. Tomás joins the fight against the dictatorship because he is in love with Isabel, his fiery childhood friend – it’s the whole driving motivation for the story. And a decade later he returns to Argentina, still very much in love with her, hoping to find her ghost. Of course, it’s not the perfect love story that this makes it sound. Isabel’s feelings for Tomás are more complicated: for her, he toggles between romantic interest and friend, and she takes advantage of his commitment to her in many heartless ways. But she still loves him. Love does not always bring out the best in us, especially not in climates of political turmoil and war, and so though their love is a mixed bag, I’d still call it love.

I’m interested in how your book rehumanises – not just in terms of rehumanising victims and those who were disappeared from statistical reduction, but also rehumanising perpetrators beyond binary moral logic. Could you discuss the choices involved, here?

I believe many bad things happen because people assume they are good. They assume they are the good guys in the conventional moral binary, and in fighting the supposed bad guys, they wind up doing the immoral thing. Some in the dictatorship were motivated by pure self-interest or cruelty, certainly; some believed they were on the right side of history. I believe it is the task of stories to challenge assumptions, particularly on a moral plain, and to show readers how they themselves could unwittingly fall into the shoes of the supposed villain of the tale. If we do not understand how we can become villains, then we are all the more likely to become them. It might sound glib to say that books are vehicles for empathy, but it’s true, and I think that such empathy needs to go every which way. It is always cowardice when we do not want to see the perspective of others, whatever side of history they land on. When I started writing the book, I had a lot of this kind of cowardice – I did not intend to look at the torture centres at all, much less the torturers themselves. But how could I understand how such places came to exist without understanding the people behind them? To my mind the true evil of political oppression is perhaps not that it divides the world into monsters and victims, but that it can make monsters of us all. 

Finally, and please take this as you want: is it better to know or not to know?

All my instincts are to answer, ‘To know; always, to know’. For writers – for seekers after historical and emotional truth – that has to be the answer, right? But we cannot know the truth, however much we try. Nor can we say how much it will hurt us or others. I hope I will always be someone who tries to know, to understand. Again, most literary thinkers probably aspire after the same. But perhaps what’s important is not the fact of knowing, but rather the act of trying to know, trying to see yourself and the world with clear eyes. The search, to end with another cliché, rather than the discovery.

Daniel Loedel is a book editor based in Brooklyn. His first novel, Hades, Argentina, was inspired by his family history. It won the Prix du Premier Roman, was a finalist for the Prix Femina and the VCU Cabell First Novelist Award, and was longlisted for the Center for Fiction First Novel Prize. His work has appeared in The Atlantic, LitHub, The Millions, and other publications.

Interview by Will Forrester, Editor.

Photo credit: Sylvie Rosokoff.

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