Interview with Leo Habets, author of the novel Hades

What is the novel Hades about?

We are now making a script for a movie. The scriptwriter asked me the same question. In one word, Hades is a novel about ‘Sehnsucht’. This beautiful German word does not exist in my mother language Dutch, nor in many other languages. It means ‘longing' but it is more than that. It also means the pain that comes with unfulfilled - or partly fulfilled - longing. ‘Sehnsucht’ is a highly emotional word. I believe this is the reason why so many people are touched by this novel. One woman told me: "After finishing your novel I cried for many hours. When I asked her why, she answered: "I do not really know. Although the story is very different than my life, so many feelings in the book are familiar to me."


What kind of longing is in your novel?

There are two layers of longing in this story. First, there is the impossible relationship between a catholic priest from the Schwarzwald and a Jewish female doctor from Freiburg. It is the longing for love, acceptance, belonging.

The second longing is less obvious, but possibly even stronger. It is the longing for God, or at least the desire to understand who we are, what we are doing here and where we go to - if anywhere.


Tell us about the relationship between the priest and the Jewish doctor?

Richard is a young but rather naive priest in St. Märgen. He meets Leah, an attractive and dynamic young woman. They start discussing faith and the church and in that process develop a friendship. Leah, who is an agnostic, attacks Richard. He defends his believes. They grow closer and the inevitable happens: they fall in love with one another. Richard is shocked when he discovers what is happening to him and fights against his feelings. Leah is increasingly discarded by the Nazis and wants to leave Germany. Therefore, their love, which is honest and pure, very soon is under tremendous pressure from Catholic theology and the Nazis. 


Will they find together?

I will not tell :-)


And the other longing

Richard, the young priest is a believer who accepts the teachings of the church until two events shake his life. First, the fact that he falls in love with a woman, which is unthinkable for him. Secondly, he is enlisted in the Wehrmacht and witnesses the atrocities of an SS Special Commando as they invade the Ukraine. In both situations, he prays to God for wisdom and help, but he feels that God lets him down when he needs him most. This changes his believe and his life.


Leah's father was a Jew, her mother a Catholic. She grew up with both religions but turned away from God after her father was murdered. "All the evil in the world shows there cannot be a loving and powerful God."


Why did you write this novel?

I have written several non-fiction books about faith. For many years, I wanted to write a book about 'doubt', because doubt is the necessary counterpart of faith. With 'doubt’, I mean asking questions about what you believe. "Why do I believe this? Do I believe this because others tell me so or is it my own conviction? Do I believe the same as I did ten years ago?" These questions are very important because without it, faith becomes dogmatic, which means that you follow a set of convictions or rules, without being able to explain or defend what you believe, or even worse, you become a fanatic, which is a sin against mankind because you put your own convictions above those of other people, or even worse, you force others to except your believes.


Anyway, I wanted to write a non-fiction book about 'doubt' until I realized that probably nobody would read the book. Believers usually are afraid to think about doubt. Non-believers are not interested in the topic.


How did the story develop?

Actually, it took more than fifteen years to convince myself to write a novel and for the story to develop. However, when I finally decided to go for it, the story did flow out of me like a waterfall. Writing the novel was a very exciting process for me. I was 63 when I wrote the story and discovered new things about me. Learning never stops.


Why is the story situated in the Schwarzwald?

My wife and I rented an apartment in St. Märgen to enjoy the beautiful nature. Four years we were up there every weekend. I read books about the rich history of the area and very soon, the story that was developing in me settled in St. Märgen. I discovered many things about the history of this village that most inhabitants even do not know.


Like what?

For instance on the beautiful church graveyard in St. Märgen, next to the impressive church, a man is buried who is responsible for killing thousands of Jews in the Ukraine. He found his way into my book.



Actually, Richard the priest meets him in the Ukraine. And they have another encounter years later, that I will not tell about now. You will have to read the book.


OK, last question. On the website we read emotional responses to the book. Why do you think this is?

As I said before, I believe the book touches two rudimentary and powerful emotions that every person has: the desire to love and be loved and the desire to understand who we are and why we are here. I think for many people it is hard to fight back tears because the longing in the book touches their own deep longings.