Book review

Part historical novel, part ghost story, Daniel Loedel’s “Hades, Argentina” is a debut novel as impressive as they come. Tough, wily, dreamlike, it explores the sometimes principled and sometimes dubious choices made by a small circle of friends during the Argentine military dictatorship of the late 1970s.

What makes Loedel’s tale so unusual is the fluid way it shifts back and forth between the real and the spectral as its Americanized narrator — Thomas Shore, born Tomás Orilla — revisits his native Buenos Aires. The wisdom of the book is summed up in a line repeated by a pivotal figure in Tomás’ life: “What could have been is the underside of what was.”

The novel opens in 1986 when Tomás — his marriage to an American woman in New York fraying because of all that he holds back from her — is telephoned by Pichuca, the dying mother of his first love, urging him back to Argentina. In the call, Pichuca rambles “half intelligibly through a patchy connection that left her sounding older than her sixty years, and a good deal crazier.”

For one thing, she tells Tomás that her daughter Isabel — “disappeared” years earlier by the military authorities and long presumed dead — may be coming back as well. For another, Tomás’ departure from Argentina was so “traceless” that it’s a mystery how Pichuca was able to track him down. Despite these oddities, Tomás returns home — with misgivings. “I must have had at least a hunch,” he says, “that the borders I’d cross on this journey weren’t the standard ones.”

Pichuca, it turns out, is right. One of the first people Tomás encounters when he’s back is Isabel, albeit a version of her that’s peculiarly diminished, both physically and emotionally.

When he gushes about what it would have meant to him to know she’d survived, her cool reply suggests that something is off: “Does it really seem I’ve survived, Tomás?”

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Through this and other clues, Tomás gradually grows aware that he’s visiting two versions of Buenos Aires simultaneously: one in the year 1986, as the country’s rulers investigate crimes of the past regime, the other a nebulous, ghost-filled city “made for forgetting as much as for nostalgia.” As Tomás navigates the “thin, porous” border between the two, we learn more about him.

In 1976, he was a young medical student, concentrating on his studies rather than his country’s unrest — that is, when he wasn’t obsessing over Isabel. Isabel’s driving passion, however, was her commitment to resistance against her country’s repressive regime. Tomás remains so smitten with her, however, that he can’t refuse her when she asks him to serve as a spy for her cause.

Just as important, both in terms of Tomás’ moral compass and his ability to do as Isabel requests, is his well-connected mentor, Colonel Felipe Gorlero. The Colonel, like Isabel, appears to Tomás in both memory form and ghostly form. It’s the Colonel who guides Tomás through the shifting “Hades” of the book’s title, blurring the lines between the factual and hypothetical.

The double vision informing Tomás’ odyssey encompasses the harshest cruelties of the military dictatorship and the way those cruelties were kept out of view. Denial of what was going on — “You were always quite gifted in this arena,” the Colonel tells Tomás — was essential to the process.

“You heard rumors,” Tomás recalls. “Someone hadn’t been heard from in a couple of days, hadn’t shown up at home either. … The one thing you never heard were the shots. For all the talk, death and violence and war remained off-screen.”

As he plumbs these layers of memory and possibility, Tomás’ journey grows more surreal. The past becomes strangely malleable. Even the spatial dimensions of buildings and boulevards are unpredictably fluid. Tomás’ misgivings about his long-ago choices have him wishing he could reach inside “that idiot version of me from the past” and alter his responses.

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But the Colonel — a figure of charm and ambiguity in both his incarnations — has little patience with his protégé’s qualms. “Much too simple a notion, your regret,” the ghostly Colonel tells him. “Do something, don’t do something — as if actions could be reduced to such measly forks in the road.”

The Colonel also supplies the gallows humor that threads through the book. “Who knew there’d be so many logistical complications to taking over a government?” he jests about the military coup. “I barely thought Argentina had one to begin with.”

The dark enchantments and increasing menace of “Hades, Argentina” were inspired, Loedel tells us, by the disappearance of his 22-year-old half-sister in 1978 after she joined the resistance against the regime. Loedel himself, born in 1988, is too young to have direct memories of the eras he depicts. But the tangles of action, intention and self-deception he evokes are spellbinding in ways that will hit home in any society where democracy, the rule of law and the very concept of the truth are in peril.

Daniel Loedel, Riverhead Books, 294 pp., $27

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