Review: Dante at the ‘dirty war’: In ‘Hades, Argentina,’ a survivor faces his own complicity
On the Shelf
By Daniel Loedel
Riverhead: 304 pages, $27
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In a series of letters written during the German occupation of France, Albert Camus explained to a friend who had become a Nazi why, even when the Second World War was over, they could no longer be friends. He writes, “[Y]ou saw the injustice of our condition to the point of being willing to add to it.” In times of fascism, Camus observed that the divide was between those who were willing to add to another’s misery and those determined to fight for justice.
In Daniel Loedel’s “Hades, Argentina,” Tomás Orilla returns to Argentina in 1986, 10 years after fleeing the country during the “dirty war,” when fascism came to power and an American-backed junta authorized its security forces to kidnap and “disappear” alleged dissidents. A democratic government was restored in 1983, and Orilla is called back to the country by his former lover’s mother, who is dying. Arriving too late, Orilla is given a message by her granddaughter: “Abuela said you’d get a do-over.”
Everywhere in Argentina’s capital, Orilla feels the presence of an unresolved past. “Buenos Aires never showed its scars, never let its surface be ruffled; it was a city made for forgetting as much as for nostalgia.” And as he reorients himself, Orilla also acknowledges that he owes a “psychic tax” to those who were left behind to cope with the junta’s repressive tactics.
In America, Orilla has relived his experiences in constant nightmares, but back in Argentina again, he realizes that not all nightmares take the same shape. “[I] considered how hard it must be for Argentines who hadn’t left, having 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 — even then, I felt bad, like I was running away again.”
A way to atone for choosing exile is presented by his benefactor, Col. Felipe Gorlero. Gorlero had stepped into Orilla’s life upon first seeing the boy playing chess, and he remained an influential presence. It was the Colonel who had made his exile possible, supplying Orilla with a fake passport and exit visa. When he meets up with the Colonel again, in 1986, in the Recoleta Cemetery, the Colonel intimates that Orilla owes more than just a tax to those left behind.
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Like Dante’s Virgil in “Purgatorio,” the Colonel has come to accompany Orilla into Hades, the land of shades, where Orilla will have a chance to relive the events that preceded his flight. The Colonel, as you may already suspect, is dead, and he presents Orilla the opportunity to change the past — to attain true penitence and to resolve the unending regret that has shadowed his life in exile. (It’s also worth noting, in another echo of “Purgatorio,” that Dante wrote “The Divine Comedy” while in exile from his beloved Florence.)
“It should have been a good thing, arguably, trying to compensate for past wrongdoings,” Orilla thinks. “But [the Colonel] lobbed the observation like it was the reverse — a moral failure, a testament to the irredeemable size of those wrongdoings.” For the first time, Orilla acknowledges that “something stickier” has bound his life to the Colonel’s, and it isn’t just a mutual love for chess.
Camus never offered his Nazi friend a route to redemption. But is there a means of atoning available to those who made choices that exacerbated the suffering of others? And what about going into exile? Is leaving an act of survival or a betrayal of those left behind? Loedel’s family history, detailed in an afterword, equips him to explore these issues with a fluency that captures the nuances of the question. It is not always “us versus them.” It is the “me versus me” that plays out in individuals as they wrestle with what it means to do the right thing.
As Orilla descends into the darkness of 1976, he enters the shadowy realm of the torturers. Unhappy after two years of medical school, he had moved to Buenos Aires, where Isabel, his childhood friend and part-time lover, had recruited him into a resistance movement. Isabel asks Orilla not to pick up a rifle or plant a bomb but to use his connection to the Colonel. If he can serve as a mole within the government, his information will be of immense benefit, especially for those families in limbo, awaiting word of the disappeared. As Isabel exploits their teenage relationship and his continued love for her, Orilla in turn exploits the Colonel’s affection for him, and each seems oblivious to how transactional their relationships have become.
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Orilla lobbies for a job at the Escuela Superior de Mecánica de la Armada (ESMA), a detention center in the heart of Buenos Aires. In an illustration of how state-sponsored terror manipulates language, being “detained” by the regime actually meant entering a process with only one outcome. Prisoners were tortured until information was extracted and then “transferred,” which meant being drugged and then dumped from airplanes into the Río de la Plata. ESMA is estimated to have detained 5,000 people; only 150 survived.
Orilla enters ESMA intending to be a witness on behalf of families of the detained. But in Loedel’s withering analysis, even Orilla’s role as witness, absent any intervention, involves complicity. Unable to give away his cover, Orilla stands silent in the presence of unimaginable cruelty and tries to offer prisoners comfort with rudimentary medical care. As he becomes increasingly paranoid that he will be discovered, his role becomes entangled in the actions he undertakes to avoid suspicion. Loedel draws the line of complicity ever closer to Orilla, asking readers to consider at what point the witness becomes victimizer.
Loedel never resorts to caricatures of evil villains. Each of the men who works at ESMA is shown as an individual who counts himself as a good family man. Among them is the Priest, a Catholic cleric ostensibly offering comfort — though as Orilla discovers, even religion has been instrumentalized by those in power. And as Orilla begins to like some of the men he works with, he wonders what that means about him. “What happened to you when you started seeing the humanity in monsters? To your humanity? Your own monstrosity?” Loedel continually works to erase the notion that only the evil commit evil acts, which adds to the horror. How do “ordinary men” become instruments of a repressive state?
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“Hades, Argentina” is a purgatory where restless souls wander in hopes of rest. But as Dante made clear at the beginning of his Purgatorio, it is a place of action, a “second kingdom in which the human soul is cleansed of sin.” In order to go home again, Orilla must finally act.
Berry lives in Oregon and tweets @BerryFLW.
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