The summer of 2005 seems to be one for back stories. We’ve had the origins of Darth Vader and Batman in Star Wars: Episode III and Batman Begins, and now we have Zorro, the novel by Isabel Allende. We could call this summer Men In Black 3 or the Birth of Mask but the copyright implications would be staggering. (I also think the pun police will kill me for it)
Isabel Allende is probably the best known female writer to come out of South America. While House of Spirits remains one of her best known books (also made into a movie featuring Winona Ryder), she has written a number of novels, memoirs, and a young adults trilogy. On her web site Isabel Allende freely admits that the majority of her work is semi-autobiographical.
She is not a stranger to personal tragedy and injustice. In 1972, her uncle Salvador Allende’s government of Chile was overthrown by the C.I.A. backed coup led by Auguste Pinochet. Both her political leanings (she wrote feminist articles for magazines) and her family connections forced her into exile for thirteen years. Settling first in Venezuela, she then travelled through Europe for a while before returning home to Chile.
Perhaps because of her tendency towards the semi-autobiographical, her life at times resembles her novels. She presents a larger- than-life figure (down to the author’s photo in Zorro, where she has represented herself as a line drawing dressed as a female version of her book’s hero) with her world travelling and her family connections.
Even the death of her daughter took on the proportions of myth in her memoir, simply titled Paula. For the year that she lingered in a coma, Isabel remained at her daughter’s bedside debating with herself about her own life; examining her own contradictions.
”I’m lost, I don’t know who I am, I try to remember who I was once but I find only disguises, masks, projections, the confused images of a woman I can’t recognize. Am I the feminist I thought I was, or the frivolous girl who appeared on television wearing nothing but ostrich feathers? The obsessive mother, the unfaithful wife, the fearless adventurer, or the cowardly woman? Am I the person who helped political refugees find asylum or the one who ran away because she couldn’t handle fear? Too many contradictions…”
In Zorro, she seems to be deliberately displaying the contradictions of her character while having an incredibly good time. The characters abound with silly romantic ideals while all around them reality is bleak and ugly. Allende seems to be purposefully bursting the balloons of nobility, heroism, romance and idealism in telling the tale of a wildly-romanticized hero.
Our hero’s father, Captain Alejandro de la Vega, has been sent with two soldiers to protect a Catholic Mission in California from a local uprising of Indians. After fending off the attack and capturing the leader, Chief Grey Wolf, Captain de la Vega’s life takes a strange turn. It seems that Grey Wolf is actually a woman, and de la Vega finds himself hopelessly smitten with her charms.
Toypurnia, Grey Wolf’s real name, turns out to be the half-breed daughter of an Indian medicine woman, White Owl, and a Spanish sailor who had deserted his ship and lived with the Indians until his death. Equally enamoured of the dashing Captain, she agrees to marry him three years later when he has finally overcome his fear of the social repercussions of marrying a mixed blood.
So even before birth, our hero is marked as different. The quintessential Romantic hero, mixed blood, connections to strange native rituals which will give him mysterious powers, and that little bit of the outsider that is so fascinating to women everywhere.
But he is also the son of a Spanish nobleman and thus has to be prepared for life properly, which means he has to be sent to Spain for schooling once he is of age. But before that, three events occur that are to play formative roles in the development of Zorro.
Along with his milk-brother Bernardo (Diego’s mother had almost died in childbirth so he had been nursed by an Indian women who had given birth simultaneously, and he became irrevocably tied to her son), he discovers a secret network of ancient Indian caves that back up onto his father’s hacienda. It’s here that the men of White Owl’s tribe would go for their initiation rites; to discover the mysteries of the universe.
Just as importantly, they discover a tunnel that leads into a room in the hacienda. It turns out that in the planning of the house, Diego’s mother had deliberately chosen its location to allow for that very purpose.
It’s also with Bernardo that Diego first bears witness to the injustices of the world. Since the time of their settling California, the Spaniards have been gradually eroding land away from the Indians. The boys come across a group of neighbouring ranchers “liberating” some territory by destroying a small village. They kill the men, hang an elderly chief, and scatter the women and children to starve in the wilderness
Just before the boys are to set sail for Europe, White Owl comes for the boys to take them on a vision quest. After eight days of ritual and fasting, they were turned loose in the wood to quest for their spirit animals. This, of course, is where the name Zorro, the fox, comes from.
It is on the long Atlantic crossing that the costume for Zorro is born. Easily bored, Diego has taken to telling the crew stories about monsters and demons to entertain himself and terrify them. Given the superstitious nature of sailors in those days, this is an easy task. After frightening them with tales of wandering spirits who travel the oceans looking for souls to steal, he garbs himself completely in black, including a mask, and pops up in the shadows. Those crew who catch an occasional glimpse swoear that evil spirits are at work.
It is in Europe where Diego completes his transference into the dual personalities, Zorro the hero and Diego the foppish nobleman. Spain of the early 1800s is occupied by Napoleon’s armies. Like most countries, the Spaniards both resent the foreign leadership and rejoice in the freedom from despotic kings, and in Spain’s case, the dreaded Inquisition.
Diego and Bernardo’s host is no exception to this rule, and even takes it further by maintaining close relations with the head of the occupying forces. But it’s his eldest daughter, not his politics, that captivates Diego. Juliana is considered one of Barcelona’s beauties, and Diego quickly loses his heart and reason to her.
When not trying to think of ways in which to win Juliana’s affections, Diego was receiving the training that would stand Zorro in good stead for years to come. Initially taken on only as a fencing student by an esteemed master, Diego gains the man’s confidence sufficiently to be admitted to the secret society, La Justicia.
A small group of men who are dedicated to fighting for justice and right wrongs, they had tirelessly worked to help victims of the Inquisition flee Spain for years. It’s under their tutelage that Zorro becomes fully realised. He is introduced to the Circle of the Master as an instrument of training and reaches his potential as a swordsman and fighter.
It would seem that Isabel Allende has set the stage for a great romantic hero. He will win the heart of his true love and live happily ever after. But instead of going down that well worn path, she throws in twists to confound expectations.
Juliana delights in the role of romantic heroine. She has read extensively on the subject and is determined that her life should follow the path laid out in novels and tales. This predisposition allows Allende the opportunity to poke fun at the genre and herself in the process.
The mysterious masked hero fighting for truth and justice has become one of our more beloved figures of romantic fantasy. Diego’s physical appearance, his mixed blood, and the mysterious rites undergone with his grandmother and La Justicia combine in elavating him to that status.
But just as she has built him up, Allende can whittle him down. His adoration for the vacuous Juliana, his vanity (the mask serves a dual purpose: a disguise and a means for covering his protruding ears), and his penchant for bold proclamations combine to make him a figure somewhat ridiculous to our eyes.
All good romantic heroes need an adversary, and Allende provides one in the name of Rafael Moncada. His desire for Juliana drives him to deeds that guarantee a heroic response on the part of Diego, and hastens the evolution of Zorro. It is Rafael, by having Juliana’s father arrested, hoping she will turn to him as a last resort, who ultimately sends Diego back to California.
Spurned by Juliana one time too many, he threatens to arrest her and her sister Isabel as the daughters of a traitor if she does not accept him. Diego insists they should flee back to his father, as that is their only chance. Selfishly, he also figures having Juliana to himself for the whole journey will finally weaken her resistance and send her to his arms.
The return journey is full of pirates and adventures. Juliana at last finds happiness in the arms of the ultimate romantic ideal; a charming and roguish privateer. “To steer a sinner down a good path is an irresistible project, and Juliana set her goal with religious zeal” is the description given to describe her happiness at the marriage. She will live out her days like her romantic heroines, her love a beacon of saintliness for her previously wayward husband.
Before Zorro can take up his mantle, there is one more obstacle to be removed. Rafael has managed to beat him to California. He has used his influence to imprison Diego’s father and oppress the populace. Zorro rises to the occasion, rights the wrongs, and sends Rafael back to Spain vowing vengeance.
At points throughout the story there are interjections provided by a narrator. Progressively, this disembodied voice makes itself conspicuous through asides and editorial comments. It speculates out loud on the motivations of characters, but confesses to ignorance, or even an unwillingness, to talk about certain details.
Given that the narrator obviously has Zorro’s permission and full cooperation, Allende has both bridged the gap between reader and subject and invested the material with a touch of realism. Although fantastical in places, and romantic in others, the off-stage voice puts the blame for that squarely on the shoulders of the characters not the story.
A myth is created both by events and the people who lived through them. Everything that happens in this book has the potential for reality, there are no exaggerations in the telling. Those occur within the reactions of the characters and their manner of retelling situations. Allende has given us a lesson in the process of myth-making.
The offstage voice provides us with the reality that serves as the basis for the embellishments and exaggerations that have gone into the creation of Zorro the character beyond the confines of this book. We get the real explanations for where he came from and how he became the figure we recognise so immediately today.
This book can be read as a wonderful story full of adventure, fun and romance. But if you choose, it can also read it as an allegory of how we all create myths about ourselves. Like Diego many of us create alter egos for a variety of situations; work, public, and private. Usually not as extreme as in the case of Zorro, they all serve the same basic purpose of allowing us to carry out a task behind the protection of a mask.
Allende shows us that while what’s behind the mask may not be as thrilling, it is a lot more interesting then imagined. Maybe we should all try letting our masks down a little more often. Who knows what we will find.
REF: Bryan McKay Edited: PC