Zorro: A Novel by Isabel Allende

Zorro: a Novel” by Isabel Allende

Was Zorro a real person?  No, he was not.  He was an American pulp fiction character, created almost 100 years ago, who became a “legend.”  Embellished, glamorized, Disneyfied, with several changes in wardrobe and equipment (the first Zorro wore a sombrero and often carried a pistol,) his latest incarnation is the star of a Colombian TV show on Telemundo – a far more promiscuous hero than the original, and with a theme song by Beyoncé.

Now, meet Diego de la Vega: real, flesh and blood, three dimensional.  This Zorro has his own frailties and prejudices (and somewhat protruding ears), plus the ingenious tricks and “disproportionate love of justice” we are all familiar with.  Diego is born in the late eighteenth century near San Gabriel, a Franciscan mission in Spanish colonial Alta California.  He is the son of Captain Alejandro de la Vega, a hard-working, hard fighting Spanish soldier seeking his fortune in the Americas; and Toypurnia, a mestiza, the daughter of a Native American shaman and a Spanish sailor.  Zorro sounds more interesting already.

Young Diego’s real adventures begin when at age fifteen he sets sail for the ancient Catalan port of Barcelona to further his education and perfect his dazzling swordsmanship.  He travels with his “milk-brother” – his silent, devoted Indian friend Bernardo – one of the many vivid characters whose lives are closely intertwined with Diego’s.  They live in the home of a family friend, Tomás de Romeu (an aristocrat of declining fortunes), where they meet his daughters: the exquisite but unattainable Juliana, and the assertive, boyish Isabel.  Juliana’s suitor is Rafael de Moncada, the necessary cruel villain of the piece; he and Diego soon become the thorn in each other’s sides.  Diego fights a duel with Moncada – not intending to kill him of course – and joins an elite fraternity of swordsmen, La Justicia.

But life in Europe is more complex than the young colonial expected.  After a series of tumultuous political events ending in tragedy, Diego flees Barcelona for California, with the two sisters and their highly emotional servant Nuria (Bernardo has already returned to California after a bout of homesickness).  More adventures await them along the way: they become involved with Spanish gypsy tribes, and French privateers and Creole beauties in New Orleans. On their return to California (minus Juliana), the real, foxy Zorro persona takes hold.

The story moves along at a cracking pace until, in the epilogue, the identity of the narrator is revealed.  This is not entirely a surprise, as the storyteller’s voice is wry, confidential and knowledgeable.  But it’s an enjoyable twist.

Meanwhile, the reader has been entranced by a dazzling array of characters: the pirate Jean Lafitte, a smooth operator if ever there was one; the sad, tender gypsy lover Amalia; Diego’s Native American grandmother, the mystical White Owl, and a myriad others.  As in many of her novels, there are strong, independent women, and there are characters in exile; and there is a good dose of magical realism.

The language is richly emotional yet polished, and glows like a jewel; a warm ruby, not a glittering diamond.  Allende always writes in Spanish, and her translator does an excellent job.

Are you ready for a magical voyage, a roller coaster ride through wonderful, unknown lands, with a dashing companion by your side?  Then this book is for you.

Author Note: Isabel Allende was born in Lima, Peru, the daughter of a Chilean diplomat.  She grew up in Bolivia, Lebanon and Chile, then traveled and worked in Europe.  She began writing articles in women’s and children’s magazines.  Back in socialist Chile in the 1970s, she wrote plays and successful television programs.  After the coup that deposed President Salvador Allende (a distant cousin), putting General Pinochet in power, Allende and her family fled toVenezuela, where they lived for 13 years.  Her first two novels, the hugely successful “House of the Spirits” (1982), and “Of Love and Shadows” (1987) were made into films.  When Allende’s 29 year-old daughter Paula died of a rare disease in 1992, she emerged from a “very dark depression” to write a memoir dedicated to her.  The proceeds helped set up the Isabel Allende Foundation, which works towards the empowerment of women and girls through literacy, health and education.  Allende lives with her second husband, Willie Gordon in San Rafael, California.  She became a U.S. citizen in 2003.  Her most recent novel is “Inés of My Soul” (2006).

Tyrone Power as Zorro
The great Tyrone Power as Zorro, 1940

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12 Comments

    • Yes, she is a marvelous writer – she conjures up a whole fascinating world. There are lots of very interesting multi-cultural elements wrapped up in this story, which I really enjoyed – and a twist in the tail! House of the Spirits is wonderful – and the film, quite a few years ago now, is very good indeed – Meryl Streep, Jeremy Irons et al…

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