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The Mark Of Isabel

Novelist Isabel Allende cuts a new swath through the myth of Zorro

By Allen Barra

ISABEL ALLENDE'S career has been marked by three distinct types of fiction—magical realism, as in The House of the Spirits (1985); historical fiction, represented by the companion novels Daughters of Fortune (1999) and Portrait in Sepia (2001); and smart-kid's lit, like last year's Kingdom of the Golden Dragon. All three paths converge in Zorro, one of those rare and perfect matches of subject and author.

The character of Zorro—"fox" in Spanish—originated not in Mexico or Spain but in the mind of a pulp writer named Johnston McCulley, who moved to Southern California in 1908 and picked up something of the color and lore of the provincial times, though nothing at all of its history. No one is sure exactly what the inspiration was for Zorro, though The Scarlet Pimpernel was a likely candidate. But the Scarlet Pimpernel fought for the aristocracy while Zorro fought for the common man; he was an outlaw and almost certainly was modeled, at least in part, on the legendary California bandit Joaquin Murieta, whose head was said to be preserved in a jar until it vanished in the San Francisco earthquake of 1906. (The screenplay to the 1998 film The Mask of Zorro ingeniously turns Zorro into the avenging brother of Joaquin Murieta.)

McCulley's first Zorro, written for a pulp adventure magazine, was simply a Spanish gentleman in a mask fighting for the rights of the downtrodden Mexican peasants. In 1920, Douglas Fairbanks Jr. changed all that, turning him into a black-suited-daredevil in The Mark of Zorro. McCulley then revived his hero in Fairbanks' image, one that has been embellished by numerous actors from Tyrone Power to Guy Williams (in the late-'50s Walt Disney TV series) and most recently by Antonio Banderas—amazingly, the first Hispanic actor ever to play the role. Along the way, Zorro was the inspiration for dozens of crime fighters. (Bob Kane, Batman's creator, paid homage to him by having Bruce Wayne's parents murdered while coming from a theater where The Mark of Zorro was playing.)

Allende has reached into this cultural compost heap of pulp fiction, movies and television and forged a character with a soul and a history. Allende (born in Peru, raised in Chile and in recent years a resident of California) has re-created Latin California and remade her hero, Diego de la Vega, into the first real All-American hero. The result of a volatile union between a liberal Spanish aristocrat and an enigmatic Shoshone Indian who, for love's sake, "tried to renounce her origins and become a Spanish lady" but who "never stopped dreaming in her own language," Diego is, literally, a noble savage imbued with a romanticist's sense of justice. "Do you truly believe that life is fair, Senor de la Vega?" he is asked. No, is his reply, "but I plan to do everything in my power to make it so."

Sent to Spain for a classical education, Diego's innate social consciousness is nourished by contact with early-19th-century radicalism. Initiated into the art of the saber by a Zen-like Jewish master, he learns acrobatic skills and parlor magic from performing Gypsies—his costume is the all-black outfit, replete with cape and caballero hat. Fleeing the tyranny of French-occupied Spain, Diego sails for the New World, is abducted near New Orleans by the pirate Jean Lafitte and returns to Old California to introduce the natives to Western enlightenment and the Spanish dons to Indian-style justice.

A picaresque novel with postmodern flourishes, the sinfully entertaining Zorro is serious fiction masked as a swashbuckler. And with luck, Allende can squeeze as many sequels out of the character as Hollywood has.

Zorro, by Isabel Allende; HarperCollins; 400 pages; $25.95 cloth.

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From the June 8-14, 2005 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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