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About the Book

Set in the last years of the 16th century, Cautivos is a meditation on writing, writers, and creativity. More than that, this short novel is about confinement, both of the mind and of the body, and therefore also about liberation. Then as now, Islam and Christianity were at loggerheads and women found themselves playing new roles, and imprisonment or worse was society’s answer to everything from murder to dissent.

Writer/activist Ariel Dorfman imagines for us scenes from the picaresque life of Miguel de Cervantes, a man who wrestled as intensely with the contradictions implicit in writing fiction—how can one write something “real” if it is labelled fiction, but in fact how can one write anything “real” unless it is fiction?—as any scribbler who followed him in the centuries since. Cervantes, of course, was the soldier, spy and adventurer who in 1605 gave the world Don Quixote, often described as the first modern novel, a book that has influenced Western culture perhaps more than any other book save the Bible.

In Cautivos, we are witness to the birth of the spirit of Don Quixote de la Mancha: an honorable if doomed figure whose travails mirror those of Miguel de Cervantes himself. Few writers have written more lovingly about their subjects than Cervantes wrote about his Quixote, and few are better positioned to appreciate the spiritual journey of Cervantes himself than Ariel Dorfman, who—not unlike Cervantes—has been alternately hounded and fêted by those in authority.

198 pages • Paperback ISBN 978-1-68219-229-0 • E-book 978-1-68219-230-6

About the Author

ariel dorfman author photo

Photo © Duke University

Born in Argentina in 1942, Ariel Dorfman spent ten years as a child in New York, until his family was forced out of the United States by the anti-communist frenzy stirred by Joe McCarthy. The Dorfmans ended up in Chile, where Ariel spent his adolescence and youth, living through the Allende revolution and the subsequent resistance inside Chile, and abroad after the dictatorship that overthrew Allende in 1973. Accompanied by his wife Angélica, he wandered the globe as an exile, finally settling down in the United States, where he is now Walter Hines Emeritus Professor of Literature at Duke University. Dorfman’s acclaimed work, which includes the play and film “Death and the Maiden,” and the classic text about cultural imperialism, How to Read Donald Duck, covers almost every genre available (plays, novels, short stories, fiction, essays, journalism, opinion pieces, memoirs, and screenplays). His award-winning books have been published in more than fifty languages and his plays performed in over one hundred countries. He contributes regularly to major papers and magazines worldwide and has been active in the defense of human rights.

Read an Excerpt

You want the truth, you’re salivating for it? Then—no interruptions. Not a whisper. Not one whisper until I’m done. Just one syllable from you or you and especially from you and—my left hand may be crippled from the battle wounds of Lepanto but the right hand is still able to wield a sword as I did in the high seas, under the command of Don Juan de Austria. You may have heard of the scar I inflicted when I was so much younger on that scoundrel Sigura who dared to insult the honor of a lady in my presence, even if it meant banishment to Italy, what I did to him and later to so many others on the battlefield, that will I do to your faces and much more, damn the consequences, and you will be the ones visited by widows and orphans in the cemetery on this Day of the Dead.

Be glad I have indeed nurtured patience.

Given that you seem to know so much about me, you must also know that I have heard questions like yours, slurs worse than yours, back there in Algiers, questions about who I was and what I was worth and who had helped me in my plans to escape and what I was really plotting. Though they pressed me hard, I never revealed what truly mattered, the plots I was indeed hiding, what I would have gladly transmitted to you gentlemen if you had shown the slightest interest. But you did not ask me about the fortifications in Algiers that I know so well, each rampart I have measured, each blockhouse and tower, inch by inch, brick by brick, and how there is a blind spot in the southern castle wall that can be easily breached, you did not ask how many of the 25,000 captives are ready to revolt if Spain were but to send a signal. Nor are you concerned that I never ceased dreaming of this Spain minute by minute in the dankest cellars and the pestilent streets of Algiers.

Five years of chains, five years of dreams, and I come home to this? To you? To men like you who have not seen combat and who have not been captured by pirates nor despaired of ever hugging their family again, men like you asking someone like me if I really was Miguel de Cervantes Cortinas, if my mother’s surname did not evoke Jewish heritage and thus impure blood, demanding, of me, of me, that I prove I had not converted to Islam, that I explain how I had survived as a slave in North Africa for so long without betraying my faith, five years without sex, how did I manage, how did I manage?

I arrived in Algiers and it was as if I had entered the mouth of Hell—dark, dark, worse because the sun was beating down on us, the sky was clear and blue, the city sparkled like a jewel. Dark, those dark-skinned urchins shouting against Don Juan of Austria, shouting to us Don Juan, Don Juan, not come here, not come here to rescue you. Die here, Christian dog, die here. A song for my birthday. It was September 29, 1575, and I was 28 years old. And trying not to curse my birth. Murmuring to someone or something still alive inside me, This captivity has been sent as a test, a way of forcing me to give birth to myself as if I were my mother on her bed of suffering, my mother who was soon to learn that her two sons, Miguel and Rodrigo, had been taken prisoner by the Berbers and would spend the rest of their lives as slaves unless they were ransomed, my mother who would spend the eternal nights ahead imagining the foulest horrors descending on her boys, spend the days scrounging for every last penny for our ransom.

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