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 else’s commands. Chastened by the lad’s independence, Sancho lets him go.

It is an episode that has stayed with me. If I recall it now, it is because I feel it contains the essential message Cervantes still has for today’s desperate humanity.

True, most of the planet’s inhabitants are not in prison, as Cervantes so often was, nor do they find themselves confined within walls, like the revolutionaries in the Argentine Embassy. And yet we live, as if captured, in a time of violence and inequality, greed and stupidity, intolerance and xenophobia, marooned on a planet spinning out of control — like lunatics sleepwalking toward the abyss.

Cervantes died 400 years ago, and yet he continues to send us words — like the wisdom of that boy threatened by Sancho Panza — that we need to meditate upon before it is too late. Nobody has the power to make us sleep if we don’t wish it ourselves. Cervantes is telling us that our besieged, besotted, captive humanity should not lose hope that we can awaken in time.

-Ariel Dorfman ‘In exile with ‘Don Quixote‘ The New York Times Book Review


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