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General fiction | Isabel Allende
Behind the mask
Isabel Allende writing a Zorro novel? Actually, they make a perfect fit, says Ian Sansom
Saturday June 4, 2005
by Isabel Allende
400pp, Fourth Estate, £16.99
Reckless, unstable, attention-seeking, hysterical, sexually provocative, given to histrionic gestures, and with at least a split, dual or possibly even a multiple personality, Zorro is the archetypal neurotic-as-hero. He also wears a mask. Obviously, out in the real world, you'd lock him up and throw away the key. On the page, though, he's absolutely irresistible.
The story goes that Isabel Allende was sitting at home one day when a bunch of people arrived on her doorstep, saying they owned the copyright to the character of Zorro and would she like to write a new novel about the masked avenger? Allende initially turned down the offer, considering such work beneath her, but then she started thinking about all that juicy historical detail - Spanish America in the late 18th century, the American war of independence, the power struggle between Old Europe and the New World, corrupt governors, the fight for justice on behalf of the oppressed - and she also started to imagine Antonio Banderas playing the role of Zorro in the film of the book, and thus was born Zorro: The Novel. All fired up and full of vigour and vim, she wrote the book, apparently, in three months.
So it should be rubbish. And of course, in parts it is: sentimental, inconsistent, awkward and full of ludicrous plot twists. But large parts of lots of books are rubbish, and sentimental, and inconsistent, and awkward, and full of ludicrous plot twists. Zorro: The Novel bears the usual scars of creation, but it's also beautiful and disturbing and profound, and anyone who tells you it isn't is clearly immune to whatever part of the normal human being thrills to feats of derring-do, and has clearly forgotten also what it's like to fashion a makeshift cape from an old shirt, to use a tie as a cummerbund, a stick as a sword, and to recreate scenes from a favourite comic, film or and old black-and-white TV series. They're probably a literary critic, in fact, or a reader only of highbrow literary fiction. En garde.
The novel is told in Allende's characteristically brisk, dizzying style, in which all men are "energetic and commanding" and spend most of their time leaping to and from whinnying horses, seducing beautiful, intelligent and highly unsuitable dark-eyed women, and amassing huge personal fortunes with which they buy lots of heavy furniture for their hacienda, which later gets burned or smashed up by despicable rogues. The story of Diego de la Vega, the son of an aristocratic Spanish landowner and a native American Shoshone warrior, who becomes Zorro while travelling the world with his dependable sidekick Bernardo, is clearly a perfect fit for the author of The House of the Spirits and The Stories of Eva Luna. There is a wise old shaman grandmother; there are initiation ceremonies; spirit guides; voodoo; perilous sea voyages; imprisonments and captures; incredible escapes; secret societies; marauders of each and every kind; and, just to give a point to all that picaresque, many a sweeping statement about the importance of fulfilling human destiny.
Zorro first made his appearance in Johnston McCully's story "The Curse of Capistrano", published in 1919: scholars suggest that McCully may have modelled the character on the infamous Californian bandit Joaquin Murieta, adding a touch or two of the Scarlet Pimpernel for good measure. McCully went on to write another 64 Zorro stories, and there have, of course, since been endless spin-off films, comic books, TV series and merchandising opportunities, not to mention the huge indebtedness of just about every masked all-American superhero to the original caped crusader: Batman, for example, is clearly just a Wasp Zorro with a fancy car. There is another Zorro film, entirely unrelated to the Allende novel, starring Antonio Banderas and Catherine Zeta-Jones, due for release later this year, and there is also a Zorro musical in development by flamenco-lite maestros the Gypsy Kings.
Given all this swash and buckling, one might reasonably ask what it is that distinguishes Allende's book from, say, Jerome Preisler's recent Zorro and the Jaguar Warriors (Preisler being one of the many people who write "Tom Clancy" novels) or David Bergantino's Zorro and the Dragon Riders (in which Zorro meets up with samurai warriors) or John Whitman's Zorro and the Witch's Curse (Whitman also writes novelisations of Digimon and Star Wars).
Allende certainly adds a few refined, ironic literary touches that are absent elsewhere in retellings and reinventions of the Zorro story: her Diego de la Vega, like Don Quixote, decides to lead the life of an adventurer partly because he has become obsessed with novels, "a minor genre plagued with inconsistencies, basic errors, and personal dramas". Allende's Zorro is also a fusspot and a dandy, obsessing over the details of his costume like some vain Greek warrior - like Alcibiades, say, or Achilles with his shield. Allende's use of a female narrator - Isabel de Romeu, one of Zorro's many female admirers - also helps to pep and perk up the myth. But Allende's real insight is into Zorro's use of the mask - in the end, after his adventures, he doesn't want to take it off. A disguise like all disguises, it becomes a problem as well as solution, a metaphor for the question that obsesses not only literary heroes and their authors, but also the perfectly sane: who am I?
• Ian Sansom's novel Ring Road is published by Harper Perennial