Like Peter Pan, Sherlock Holmes or Sam Spade, Zorro is an enduring icon of the imagination. First appearing in 1919, the character has made a number of dramatic comebacks over the years. The most memorable, at least in a cinematic sense, were Tyrone Power’s turn as the masked crusader for justice in Spanish California in The Mark of Zorro, and Antonio Banderas’ portrayal of the original Zorro’s successor in The Mask of Zorro (a mask Banderas is set to wear again, in the upcoming Legend of Zorro). And perhaps it is best to forget other interpretations of the character, such as George Hamilton’s 1981 Zorro, The Gay Blade, in which Hamilton attempted to capitalize upon the unexpected success of his Dracula comedy, Love at First Bite (suffice it to say, Hamilton was better in a coffin).
One of the intriguing aspects of the character is how it has been reimagined over the years (and yes, that includes, as it must, reflection upon Hamilton’s swinging version). Most notably, in the updated Banderas version, Zorro acted not just to protect the Californians from the cruelty of their oppressive military leaders, but also intervened to save the lives of many Native Americans who had essentially been enslaved by greedy opportunists looking to cash in on an early (and unmentioned) discovery of gold in California.
This brings me to Isabel Allende’s retelling of the Zorro legend, which recasts the character as the son of a Spanish soldier-turned-don and his Native American wife. Allende incorporates the Native American imagery into the life of her hero from even before his birth, and makes significant use of it throughout the arc of the story, which is actually more about how Zorro got his “start” than anything else.
Born Diego de la Vega (the boy’s first name was a disappointment to his father, who only allowed it because it seemed his mother might die in childbirth) in 1795, the young boy grew up heavily influenced by his grandmother, a Native American shaman. Diego’s parents had first met when his father, Alejandro, fought to save a mission from an uprising – an uprising led, rather surprisingly, by the woman who would come to be called Regina as she existed within Spanish society in California. Alejandro became madly infatuated with Regina, and in the end they were married. One would be hard pressed to describe it as a happy marriage, as neither particularly understood the other. Alejandro had hoped his wife would embrace the opulence of the life he was creating for her; she, in turn, found it difficult to resist the allure of her former life.
Allende creates a “milk brother” for Diego in Bernando, the son of Diego’s wet nurse who was born at almost the same time. Despite the privileges afforded him by his father’s wealth, Diego’s ties to the natives, both by blood and by his abiding friendship with Bernardo, instill in him an abiding hunger for justice.
Diego’s father sends him to Spain for his education. There he is recruited into a secret society called La Justicia, which battles oppression in its many forms. And it is during this time that Diego begins to develop the many varied skills which will serve him well as he dons the mask of his enduring alter ego. Diego, with Bernardo ever at his side, evolves into a dashing, selfless hero; he then returns home to California, where the natives are desperate for such a defender.
The novel is told by an unidentified narrator (this becomes one of the novel’s “twists,” in the end). And it is recorded as if the narrator is retelling the story of Zorro’s early days in a rather conversational way. This lends an interesting sense of pacing to the story; it is a bit leisurely in places, and yet covers quite a bit of terrain as it speeds through Diego’s childhood. The insertion of Diego’s familial ties to the native population lent a realism to his struggles against oppression (and also tended to diffuse the potentially patronizing sense that Diego was little more than the “Lord of the Manor” deigning to protect those who of course could not protect themselves). But the whole “earth mother” motif Allende designs for Diego’s grandmother stretches the bounds of credulity, elevating the authenticity of native myth to what I found to be excessive levels.
Despite that, the novel itself is engaging and action-packed. Allende gives her hero plenty to do, not just in California but in Spain as well (a Spain still wracked by the Napoleonic wars, filled with poverty and oppression). And she creates some engaging characters for him to both labor with and struggle against. In Zorro, Allende vividlly recreates the landscape of Spanish California and offers up a hero who never was, but should have been.
Author’s Note: This article was originally posted at Wallo World