28 October 2009

Review "Zorro" by Isabel Allende

Some of you might be far too young to remember an ancient TV show about a daring, swordfighting swashbuckler who dressed in black and wore a black mask and rode a (probably) black horse doing away with the bad guys of Mexico. Don't confuse him with the Cisco Kid, who wore a more ornately designed outfit and had a humorous sidekick. Zorro dressed all and black and has had movies made about him in recent years.

I haven't seen the movie that this book was related to, but that is of no consequence. For me, the important thing was to grab and read anything by Isabel Allende that I might find in the library. It occurs to me that she is one writer whose career I have followed over the years. At first she was famous for her work in the genre of magic realism. She had a wonderful way of sliding the magic in as a perfectly normal part of life. In one story, a woman who is a witch is feared by the men, so she can't get a husband, until, we are told almost in the next breath, the man arrives who loves her perhaps even because of her strength. In a later novel, the magic disappears. It gets explained away. At the time I was disappointed, but now I see it as part of the writer's life. She is not made of stone and she, like her stories and her ideas, must grow and change. When I read a young adolescent novel about a boy who went with his grandmother to the jungles of South America, I felt that she had found a new path. It wasn't the same as her old magic realism, but it was a path that worked for her all the same.

In Zorro, she is asked to tell the story of how Zorro came to be. This meant putting together all the pieces of skill and knowledge that hero has displayed in his adventures and trying to make them plausible. To do this, she gives him a family in Mexico and an ancestry that includes the local native Indians. Some skills grow out of his boyhood escapades, others develop during a sojourn in Spain. Some are amusing. For instance, she suggests that the reason he wore a mask that was really a scarf tied over half his head was that he needed to hide his ears. His ears stuck out in such a way that every one would recognise him instantly if he didn't tie them down.

The famous 'Z' symbol, which we all remember, the quick flick of his sword, swish, swish, swish in less time than it took him to pass by, (the sort of skill that fascinates children - could we move a sword that fast?) came as much from his humor as his pride, a bit of graffitti that was always going to betray him at some point.

Allende adds some research into history and life in the time Zorro is set, telling us what was happening to the Indians as they tried to survive the white invasion, information about what happened in Spain during the Napoleonic wars, (just think, Hornblower was in France, according to the story in Lord Hornblower, trying to escape at the same time that Zorro was in Spain trying to escape), and descriptions of piracy and the slave trade. For instance, I hadn't realised that the terror of Skull and Crossbones flag derived from the fact that it meant no prisoners would be taken. The red flag, on the other hand, meant that prisoners would be taken and held for ransom.

Sometimes, though, I felt she was bored, as if there was another depth she would have liked to add to the hero but was constrained not to. That, though, might be just an effect of the translation since she wrote it in Spanish. It was only every now and then that there were one of those beautiful pieces that are just all Allende. Fortunately, one of these is  the opening, which was what encouraged me to read all the way through to the end.

This is a good one for when you are in the mood for an adventure story, and if you have some nostalgia for Zorro, so much the better.

Morva Shepley

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