Ariel Dorfman: In Exile with ‘Don Quixote’

Lorenzo Coullaut Valera’s 1930 monument to Cervantes in Madrid. Photograph: Luis Garca (Zaqarbal). (Public Domain)

It is October 1973, and men and women crowd the Argentine Embassy of Santiago. A coup has just dismantled the Chilean government headed by Salvador Allende, and novelist and activist Ariel Dorfman finds himself and 30 other refugees gathered around a copy of Don Quixote. As they read aloud, a certain kinship to Cervantes seems to grow amongst them. Victims, prisoners, and exiles, their experiences hearken back to the Spanish author’s five-year imprisonment at the hands of Barbary pirates. Upon his return, met with indifference, Cervantes realized that, while his body may be crippled, his soul was not, and he was free to despair or create in response to that pain. He chose the latter, and Don Quixote de la Mancha was born.

Cervantes realized that we are all madmen constantly outpaced by history, fragile humans shackled to bodies that are doomed to eat and sleep, make love and die, made ridiculous and also glorious by the ideals we harbor. To put it bluntly, he discovered the vast psychological and social territory of the ambiguous modern condition. Captives of a harsh and unyielding reality, we are also simultaneously graced by the constant ability to surpass its battering blows.

Don Quixote fully exemplifies that freedom that Cervantes, Dorfman, and the refugees in the Argentine embassy all honored above all else. And some things remain in our power despite the manacles that surround us, as Cervantes makes evident in the second part of his work:

Sancho Panza has been made governor of a fictitious island by a frivolous duke. The lowly squire proves to be a far wiser and more compassionate ruler than the noblemen who mock him and his master. One night, doing the rounds, he comes upon a young lad who is running away from a constable. The boy gets cheeky, and the ersatz governor sentences him to sleep in prison. Infuriatingly, the prisoner insists that he can be put in chains but that no one has the power to make him sleep: Staying awake or not depends on his own volition and not on anyone elses commands. Chastened by the lads independence, Sancho lets him go.

Today, these manacles, Dorfman reflects, are not often as literal as those that bound the famous Spanish author. Instead, they are “violence and inequality, greed and stupidity, intolerance and xenophobia,” realities that some avoid in a dreamlike state, only to wake up when it is too late. Nonetheless, Dorfman reminds his readers:

“Nobody has the power to make us sleep if we don’t wish it ourselves.”

Read the rest of Ariel Dorfman’s article for the New York Times here.

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