Isabelle Allende’s El Zorro: A Book Review
I confess I have superhero ambitions. I am attracted to anyone having the fashion sense and BMI to pull off wearing tights and a cape in public and I want to be just like them when I grow up. The consummate altruism that comes along with the costume is an ideal I can only hope to achieve.
I regret that usually I must look to heroes of a more mundane nature for most of my inspiration. When Isabel Allende wrote El Zorro, I knew I had to read it. Impatiently I waited for it to come out in paperback. Seeing it paraded in front of me constantly over the next few months, I broke down and bought it in hardcover, an honor normally reserved for books I plan to read over and over. It turns out that the investment was prudent. I recently reread this wonderful story. It was just as good the second time around.
The author herself is almost as interesting as her characters. Like El Zorro Diego de la Vega, Allende has noble roots. Her father was Chile’s ambassador to Peru and her cousin was Salvador Allende, the Chilean President deposed by Augusto Pinochet’s CIA-backed coup of September 11, 1973. Like Diego, she was essentially exiled to Spain as a young adult. Perhaps it was inevitable that she would write the story of the Fox.
As the daughter, cousin, and stepdaughter of diplomats, Allende traveled the world, sometimes leaving her foreign home precipitously when political or family crises demanded it. Her stepfather was a Chilean diplomat in Lebanon at the time of the Suez Canal crisis; her family fled to Venezuela when Pinochet deposed President Allende.
Educated in Europe, Lebanon, and South America Allende’s professional career began in journalism. Prior to the coup, she approached the Nobel winning Chilean poet Pablo Neruda for an interview. He declined, saying she had too much imagination to be a journalist, and told her to write books. With encouragement like that, how could she not?
Her unique creativity revealed itself first in children’s stories and plays she wrote, then, after the coup while she was in exile, in the novels she authored. She has sixteen published books, and a seventeenth is due to be published in the fall. Even in translation, Allende writes beautifully. Although she lives in California, she writes in her native Spanish.
El Zorro explores the creation of not just a folk hero, but of the boy, Diego de la Vega, who grew up to become el Zorro. Spanning two continents and four decades, there is never a lull in the story. The swordplay is really cool, too.
Zorro’s parents meet at a Spanish Mission. His father, Alejandro de la Vega, is the brilliant young officer charged with the mission’s defense. His mother, Toypurnia, is the daughter of White Owl, a shaman and healer of the Gabrieleno tribe, and a Spanish sailor who deserted his ship and lived among the Indians.
Toypurnia is injured in an attack she leads on the San Gabriel mission. When the Spaniards discover that she is a woman, she is given medical treatment. Alejandro de la Vega is fascinated by her and often tends to her himself. She and Alejandro fall in love and rather than allow her to be executed as a captured enemy, Alejandro maneuvers Toypurnia into the protection of Doña Eulalia de Callís, the wife of the governor of Alta California, who, as a condition of Toypurnia’s pardon, turns her into a “Christian Spanish lady” newly christened “Regina María de la Inmaculada Concepción.” Alejandro and Toypurnia are married and inherit a grand estate when Doña Eulalia and her husband, Governor Pedro Fages, decide to return to Spain.
When Toypurnia seems to have failing health during her pregnancy with Diego, an unmarried pregnant Catholic Indian woman is sent from the San Gabriel Mission to be her servant. The two women give birth the same day, but since Toypurnia’s health continues to decline the servant nurses both Diego and her own son, Bernardo. Diego and Bernardo come to be more than milk brothers, though. They are the best of friends and when Bernardo’s mother is killed during a pirate raid on the family’s compound, they are raised as true brothers. Bernardo is so traumatized by seeing his mother murdered by the marauders, though, that he becomes mute.
Bernardo is the perfect foil for Diego’s personality. He is smart, strong, silent, sturdy, and unassailably loyal to his brother. Diego, on the other hand, is small, mischievous, brilliant, witty, and the instigator of most of the trouble the boys find.
Diego’s Indian grandmother, White Owl, exerts as much influence on the course of the boys’ lives as do the Spaniards who raise them. She takes the boys on shamanistic journeys of survival and character development. On a survival vision quest Bernardo finds his spirit animal, the horse Tornado, and Diego finds his totem, the fox. “Like the fox, you will discover what cannot be seen in the dark, you will disguise yourself, and you will hide by day and act by night,” his grandmother explains after the vision quest.
Diego is sent to Barcelona, to the home of his father’s best friend, to be educated. Naturally Bernardo accompanies him, ostensibly as a servant but in actuality Bernardo is educated the same as Diego. The Spanish household accepts the boys without reservation. He and Bernardo reach their adult growth there. As political intrigues permeate the Barcelona, Diego and Bernardo find themselves getting involved to preserve their own reputations as well as those of their patron. El Zorro, a masked and mustachioed liberator of political captives, is born due to the necessity of acting in secret.
The political climate in Barcelona becomes dire and Diego and Bernardo are entrusted with the safety of his patron’s beautiful daughters. They escape back to America, encountering the famous pirates Pierre and Jean Lafitte in the process. Their return to Alta California does not improve their circumstances. The political climate there is at least as bad as it was in Barcelona. El Zorro has a need to continue to act. The Zorro we are all familiar with becomes the legend we love.
Allende’s El Zorro embodies the melding of many different aspects of society into one conflicted and heroic personality. El Zorro becomes a legend because he has no choice given his integrity his complex background. Loyalties that should be divided find a simple resolution simply by doing what is right. Diego is of three worlds: Indian, Californio, and Spain. El Zorro cannot fail because of his wit and his friends and family.
The elements that make el Zorro a hero and a legend are the elements that create any true legend: mystery, physical prowess, masterful wit, and above all else, honor.