Monday, April 7, 2014

The Birth of a Hero: Isabel Allende's Zorro

Sadly, unavailable on Kindle.
It is a testament to the strength of fictional characters when we seek to learn what they were like as children. In Isabel Allende's Zorro, the movie-serial icon of the 40s, TV icon of the 50s, and big-screen icon of five decades since, is revealed as he develops the traits that made him attractive to generations.

To me, who lived for two decades in the LA area, the Zorro legend has a particular appeal. Place-names and real historical figures mingle in these legends with fictional heroes and villains. The Robin Hood quality of Zorro made him particularly endearing to me as a child; long before I knew of La Cienaga and the Cajuenga Pass, I felt the satisfaction of seeing justice dispensed at the end of a blade by Don Diego de la Vega's alter ega, Zorro. In my childhood, Zorro and Guy Williams were inseparable. Even the brilliant performances by George Hamilton (Zorro, the Gay Blade) and Antonio Banderas (The Mask of Zorro) in the role could not quite disabuse me of this. "They are actors," a younger me whispers. "You know the real Zorro is Guy Williams."

It took a book, this book, to finally replace my mental image of the Spanish hero in the Alta California. For the first time, I see the growth of Zorro in the childhood training of young Diego. I learn why his brother Bernardo (relegated to the role of sidekick in so many Hollywood renditions) is important to de la Vega's yearning for justice and his protective stance toward California's Indians. I meet and understand his childhood nemesis, Rafael Moncada, and learn why their contention has the power to endure into their adulthood.

For the first time, I understand why the bumbling of the doltish Garcia so often turned the tide in Zorro's favor. I see the long history that allows the Franciscan priest to extend the sanctuary of the mission to a thief's desire for escape. Even the map of Zorro's domain is made explicit.

Rich in detail and ambitious in scope, Allende's Zorro introduces us to the "real" person behind the legend. We follow the development of the two boys Diego and Bernardo, as they seek to define for themselves the sources of honor and courage, learning from Diego's fierce mother and Indian grandmother. We discover the love of mischief that underlies Zorro's later crusade against the oppressive governors of Alta California. Then we follow the two young men to Spain, where they learn new modes of "magic" and a new respect for justice in the house of the wealthy Tom├ís de Romeu. 

Like any biography, some of its power comes from the presumed knowledge of the writer—and Allende herself speaks as a character in Diego's life, Isabel de Romeu, in the latter half of this tale. The character of Isabel is a perfect foil to the adolescent Diego: intelligent, capable, and endowed with the same sense of mischief and desire to protect the weak. (In fact, I got the impression that Allende was drawn to write this fictional biography so that she could enter the story of a childhood hero. Such is the power of her writing that the suspicion soon fades, and we accept Isabel de Romeu as if she had long been part of the Zorro mythos.)

Perhaps because the action is sumptuously detailed and partakes of those Thursday evening thrillers that glued us to the TV (pirates and grizzly bears supplement the usual fencing and whip-cracking), I found it reminiscent of the "original" Zorro tales I loved as a child. It was easy to drop back into that cliff-hanger terror. Will Zorro be discovered? Will the Alcalde's men catch him?

Will Allende write a sequel? 

Zorro is top-notch, both as action fiction, and as an homage to the original. Allende has delivered—now, where's the popcorn?