Zorro: The Novel
by Isabel Allende
Published by HarperCollins
400 pages, 2005
Buy it online
The Mark of the Man
Reviewed by Sue Bursztynski
Though it's mostly set in Spain, international bestselling author Isabel Allende's most recent novel begins and ends in California, the traditional setting of the Zorro adventures. The book explains, in great detail, just how "El Zorro," the Fox, came to be so acrobatic, such a skilled swordsman, where he got his horse, Tornado, even how he designed that stylish black costume.
Zorro was the first modern superhero. He started life in Johnston McCulley's novel The Curse of Capistrano, which was serialized in the pulp magazine All-Story Weekly in 1919. The author probably never expected it to become as popular as it did, because the story ended with the hero revealing his secret identity. It turned out to be the first of 65 tales and was followed by 37 film versions, not including the matinee serials. Douglas Fairbanks took a copy of The Curse of Capistrano with him on his honeymoon and ended up making the first Zorro movie. Since then, such well-known actors as Tyrone Power, George Hamilton, Antonio Banderas and Anthony Hopkins have donned the black mask and cloak, besides the famous Disney TV series with Guy Williams (for my money the definitive Don Diego) and a more recent TV series with Duncan Regehr. Zorro was also the inspiration for the Dark Knight, Batman. In his turn, Zorro was probably inspired by the Scarlet Pimpernel, whose adventures Johnston McCulley had almost certainly read.
Zorro is, by day, the foppish Don Diego De la Vega, son of a Spanish landowner near Los Angeles, in those days just a village. By night, he dresses in black and fights for justice for the poor and oppressed. Everywhere he goes, he carves the sign of the Z, to let it be known he was there.
Isabel Allende has thought carefully about how the hero might have started his career. In this novel, he is the son of Don Alejandro De la Vega, but also of Toypurnia, a Native American warrior known to her people as Daughter of Wolf, captured while leading a rebellion. Eventually persuaded to convert to Christianity, she has married De La Vega, who had saved her life. Young Diego's grandmother is a highly-respected shaman, White Owl. Bernardo who, in the movies, was his deaf-mute servant, is his milk-brother, son of Ana, a tribeswoman who had briefly nursed Diego while his mother was recovering from childbirth. The boys learn from White Owl, discover a secret cave and go on spirit quests as part of their initiation. There, Diego learns that the fox is his totem (hence the name Zorro). Bernardo's totem is the black foal who eventually becomes Zorro's horse Tornado. Bernardo isn't deaf at all and is only mute due to the childhood trauma of seeing his mother raped and killed.
On the voyage to Spain for Diego's education, the boys swing from the ship's rigging and Diego learns sleight of hand from a crew member, both of which will later come in handy. In Europe, Diego learns swordsmanship from a master who is a member of the secret society known as La Justicia, which Diego joins, taking the name of Zorro.
In telling her tale, the author takes the trouble to give a detailed historical background. This is the Spain of Napoleon's time, ruled by Joseph Bonaparte. There is plenty of opportunity for Zorro to practice his future career, saving friends from prison and death, and first wearing the black cape and mask. Later, he improves the costume after having seen and admired that of pirate Jean Lafitte. This Zorro doesn't even have a moustache -- he glues one on to improve his disguise. When the French are forced to withdraw, Diego and the daughters of the Francophile family with whom he was living must go on a journey across Spain to escape back to the New World.
Allende has included a few fantasy elements, such as a telepathic link between Diego and Bernardo, and the visions during the boys' spirit quests. They seem to fit into the novel well enough, without jarring. The story is written as a sort of biography, seen from the viewpoint of one of the characters, who reveals her identity near the end.
The author can't resist slotting in such modern sensitivities as the treatment of America's indigenous people. This is fair enough; there really isn't any other way, now, to write a story set in this time and place.
Zorro is huge fun. For instance, I laughed out loud when I realized that a heavy chandelier mentioned early in the book was written into the plot especially so that Zorro could swing from it near the end. And Diego really is something of a dandy, wishing he dared to grow a real moustache, because it is so stylish, as is his Jean Lafitte-inspired costume, which he can't wear except as Zorro. Another plus is the large number of strong female characters.
Yes, great fun, as long as you understand that it isn't about Zorro's main career, only an explanation of how it began. Zorro's entire career in California is disposed of in a few pages of epilogue, without suggesting a sequel.
If the book has a downfall, this is it: I would have liked to have seen how Allende would have handled this character throughout the course of his life and career, not just the very tip, as shown. Though a novel can seldom be faulted for leaving a reader wanting more, more was what I wanted. | June 2005
Sue Bursztynski is a children's and fantasy writer and librarian based in Australia.