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Allende’s version of ‘Zorro’ a sinfully entertaining novel

Allen Barra Newhouse News Service

Isabel Allende’s career has been marked by three distinct types of fiction: what used to be called 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 New York journalist and pulp writer named Johnston McCulley, who moved to Southern California in 1908.

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 and Indians. In 1920, Douglas Fairbanks Jr. changed all that, turning him into a black-suited daredevil in “The Mark of Zorro.”

After the success of the Fairbanks film, McCulley 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 and successfully by Anthony Hopkins and Antonio Banderas.

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. Also, with a history.

Born in Peru, raised in Chile and in recent years a California resident, Allende has rooted her story in a re-creation of Latin California and remade Diego de la Vega into the first real all-American hero.

Diego is 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.”

He is 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.”

This Zorro stumbles through much of his early life, losing his first love and even an occasional duel.

Sent to Spain for an 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 native-style justice.

Along the way, Allende winks at the reader, weaving bits of actual history with characters and scenes from “Zorro” movies. (Her Diego stuns a foe by slicing a candle in two without disturbing the flame, as Tyrone Power did in “The Mark of Zorro.”)

A picaresque novel with postmodern flourishes – the identity of the story’s narrator is not revealed until the postscript – the sinfully entertaining “Zorro” is serious fiction masked as a swashbuckler.

And with any luck, Allende can squeeze as many sequels out of the character as Hollywood has.

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