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Originally published Thursday, May 5, 2005 at 12:00 AM

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"Zorro": Isabel Allende's pen behind the sword

At first it seemed preposterous — the idea of Isabel Allende, a much honored writer whose books are read by millions in English, Spanish and other languages, constructing...

Seattle Times book editor

At first it seemed preposterous — the idea of Isabel Allende, a much honored writer whose books are read by millions in English, Spanish and other languages, constructing a novel around an American pop-culture hero.

Then again ... the hero was Zorro, dashing alter ego of the wealthy and foppish Diego de la Vega, the masked Hispanic Robin Hood who has claimed the hearts of millions through portrayals in books and comic strips, film and television.

"Initially I said, 'forget it,' " Allende said by phone recently from her home in California. "But then I decided it was a beautiful challenge." Allende, known for straight talk and a feisty attitude, sounded a bit like the Masked Man himself, the "fox" (Zorro means fox in Spanish) ever-ready to storm a Spanish prison, fight the dark enforcers of the Inquisition or rescue a beautiful damsel from defilement.

The result is "Zorro," (HarperCollins, 400 pp., $25.95), in bookstores this week, just in time for Cinco de Mayo. It also comes just a few months before the film sequel to the most recent Zorro movie reprises the roles of Antonio Banderas ("I have all kinds of sexual fantasies about him," Allende confesses, "and he's young enough to be my grandson") and Catherine Zeta-Jones.


Richly textured and moody, ironic and humorous, Allende's take on the life of Diego de la Vega begins with his California birth in the late 18th century. It covers his education and young manhood in Spain and concludes with his return to California (more or less where the hugely popular 1950s television series began).

Allende's "Zorro" combines unrequited love and good old-fashioned adventure — Allende, better known for her novels and memoirs ("House of the Spirits," "Daughter of Fortune") has also honed her skills in creating drama and suspense in writing several children's books, including "City of the Beasts" and "Kingdom of the Golden Dragon."

The many Zorros

Zorro was created in 1919 by writer Johnston McCulley, who published the first Zorro story in a weekly that later became Argosy magazine.

Dozens of Zorro books and short stories followed. The legendary swashbuckler Douglas Fairbanks Jr. portrayed the first film version of Zorro in 1920. Numerous sequels followed, including a memorable portrayal by Tyrone Power.

In the 1950s, McCulley assigned the film and television rights to Mitchell Gertz, a Hollywood agent, who eventually collaborated with Walt Disney on the television series starting Guy Williams (real name: Armando Catalano).

It is difficult to comprehend in today's hundred-channel age the universal popularity of the "Zorro" series. Disney went to great expense to re-create the world of Spanish colonial Los Angeles. The character's courage, humor and concern for the underdog drew in more than a third of the television viewing audience — 35 million viewers at the time. The children of the 1950s sang the unforgettable "Zorro" theme song and snapped up Zorro capes, Zorro watches and Zorro coloring books, and broke uncounted fingers and limbs attempting to duplicate his chandelier-swinging, roof-hopping feats.

Once the series and its syndication had run its course, Disney let the rights revert to the Gertz family, which still controls the "Zorro" name and figure. It's the Gertz group, Zorro Productions Inc., that approached Allende about writing his life. Allende and Zorro Productions will split the profits of the book 50-50, she says.

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Her answer was initially no. "I didn't want to write on demand," she says. "But the period was so fascinating to me, and the character was so charming."

She says there were no limitations on the character she created, other than: 1) he wear a black outfit and a mask; 2) he fight for justice; 3) he ride a horse named Toronado, and 4) he have a best friend named Bernardo.

A "vulnerable, funky" hero

From those very broad outlines, Allende has created a charming young man. She inserts many playful touches, fleshing out Zorro's backstory with tidbits such as: Diego de la Vega begins to wear his mask partly out of vanity, hoping to pin down a pair of protruding (and potentially identifying) ears.

"I wanted my Zorro to be a young man before he becomes Zorro — vulnerable, funky and goofy, but full of desire to help the poor," said Allende. "He's not violent, he's playful. He humiliates the villain, but does not kill unless he's forced to. He's different from modern action heroes that can only be killed by Kryptonite" or superheroes who are mostly gadgetry like the Terminator. "If you deprive them of all that stuff," she says, "there's nothing."

Allende's portrayal of Southern California's history is far different from the sanitized 1950s version. Zorro's mother is a Native American warrior; Bernardo's muteness comes from seeing his mother raped and killed by pirates as a child. The Native Americans' treatment at the hands of their Spanish colonial masters tinges the story with sorrow.

The young de la Vega's sojourn to Spain provides equally rich material. He and Bernardo's visit there coincides with Napoleon's invasion. There's insurrection, rebellion and religious persecution. Allende creates a secret society, La Justicia, that draws the young Zorro into its membership. The group dedicates itself to springing victims of political and religious persecution from Spain's hellish prisons.

Throughout, the young man's impetuousness is balanced by his best friend's stalwart nature. "Bernardo is the other side of character, quiet, serious, focused, grounded, with all the spirit of his grandmother," a Native American shaman, Allende says. "He is a very centered character. The contrast really helped me a lot. I didn't want him to be a clown, and I wanted him not to speak by choice."

In "Zorro," Allende pulls off a neat writerly trick: making the improbable seen possible. Zorro's backstory is practically seamless, with every quirk, from his athletic abilities to his mystical bond with Bernardo, smoothly explained. Early reviews indicate that it works: "One does long for a little more swordplay," Library Journal noted, "but Diego's crisis of identity, his relationship with Bernardo, and his love for a woman he cannot have make for enthralling reading. Allende is an enthralling storyteller."

For any storyteller, she says, the most important challenge is to "have the author surrender to the story.

"Why do people surrender to a tale like Harry Potter? You end up believing, not that this happened, but that it is a metaphor for your own life, that it symbolizes something.

"The writer has to be so convinced that the story is relevant and true, that you can convey it in a truthful and eloquent way. I could not write about something that doesn't move me and touch me... the good writer really believes it can happen."

Mary Ann Gwinn: 206-464-2357 or mgwinn@seattletimes.com

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