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Comparative Literature Studies 43.4 (2006) 544-549

Bradley J. Nelson

Condordia University
Cervantes in Algiers: A Captive's Tale. By María Antonia Garcés. Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 2003. xvi + 349 pp. $39.95.

María Antonia Garcés's Cervantes in Algiers: A Captive's Tale is a personal and compelling critical enterprise. Indicating from the outset that her study was undertaken during a "period of mourning" for the death of her oldest son "and closest interlocutor," Garcés establishes an intimate tone while challenging the concept of critical objectivity in a book that seeks "to turn trauma into song . . . mourning into creative endeavor" (xi). A work of literary [End Page 544] scholarship, however, cannot remain completely within the realm of the imagination, and the author soon begins to occupy a variety of narrative and analytical roles. This both complicates her critical task—resituating Cervantes criticism within the field of trauma studies—and tests the patience of the reader by attempting to anchor her admittedly therapeutic paradigm to a problematic blend of psychoanalytical concepts and a wide-ranging assemblage of historical and critical sources. 

In the interest of fairness, I should begin by saying that this book is in fact two books. The first two chapters bring to light lesser-known facts and historical documents concerning Cervantes's captivity, escape attempts, and return from the frontier city of Algiers. This section is executed in a masterly display of rather Cervantine narrative strategies, as the main plot is often led into interesting historical or theoretical detours, or interrupted with relevant excursuses that fill in important gaps. The last three (psycho)analytical chapters, whose stated goal is the reorientation of the entire Cervantine corpus—both literary and biographical—from the point of view of trauma studies, are as problematic and unconvincing as the first two chapters are important. 

In the introduction, Garcés brings together a number of perspectives in order to unconceal, as it were, the meaning behind the numerous references to captivity and incarceration in Cervantes's oeuvre. Among the main players are the following: Portuguese cleric and fellow captive of Cervantes, Antonio de Sosa, and his record of life—and strife—in Algiers, Topographia, e historia general de Argel (1612); author, survivor, and chronicler of the Holocaust, Primo Levi; a number of psychoanalytical notions of trauma; and the author herself, who foregrounds her personal experience as the victim-survivor of a kidnapping in Cali, Colombia, in 1983. The stated goal is to explore the "dynamic borderline between 'the life' and 'the work' in Cervantes" through an approach that connects "history, cultural studies, and literary testimonies with psychoanalytical literary criticism" (4). Other borderlines the author outlines and later questions traverse the limits between biography and criticism, theory and practice, and, in the case of her preferred trauma theorists, Cathy Caruth, Shoshana Felman, and Dori Laub, "field work, clinical perspectives, and academic research" (4). In the end, however, Garcés sees her criticism as a "poetic form of witnessing"; in other words, there is a decided volition to identify her own writing with what she is seeking in the writings of Cervantes, based in part on her own traumatic experiences. 

Any reader versed in psychoanalytical criticism will recognize the conceptual and critical minefield that Garcés has constructed around her narrative, testimonial, and analytical voices. Nevertheless, the introduction ably explains key psychoanalytical concepts, such as the Lacanian "real" and [End Page 545] its pulsating drive of the symptomatic repetitions of fantasy that protect the traumatized and, ultimately, unlocatable psyche of the subject of psychoanalysis. By starting with Freud and Lacan, however, Garcés undercuts her later deployment of what Lacan himself might have called the American school of ego psychology. The Lacanian analyst is most emphatically not an identificatory and empathic witness, which is the most explicit of the many roles that Garcés plays: "I am personally aware of the vicissitudes of telling undergone by the survivor to recount their stories" (6). One of the more telling moments occurs when she...


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