Saturday, 5 May 2018

Review: Zorro by Isabel Allende

I've always been a fan of swashbucklers and historical adventure, but I have to admit that my enthusiasm is targeted more to the 17th century than the early 19th - and thus all the various retellings and other stories of Zorro don't attract my attention so much. But when I browsed the sale of used books at the local library and found Isabel Allende's Zorro available for a single euro, I decided to give it a try. And although it was not the best historical adventure book I've read, it was still worth a read.

Zorro is probably known to everyone already, but basically this is one of the early pulp-type heroes: a man with superior skills playing the double role of a fool and a hero (the latter naturally while wearing a mask). Allende takes this old story and, instead of repeating what we already know, explores how a character like Zorro could come into existence - what needs to happen for him to learn the skills he has, why he conceals who he is etc. In Part I, the tale begins - naturally and annoyingly - with Diego de la Vega's childhood in California. Even the author doesn't seem to like this and apologizes to the reader at the beginning of Part II when we get to Diego's years of education in French-occupied Spain. There, Diego makes himself an enemy, falls in love and learns his superior swordsmanship from a secret society of superior fighters - and here he also creates the persona of Zorro and turns his everyday self into a fool. This latter innovation naturally handicaps his chances of getting the girl he loves. After rather a long stay in Spain, the hero finally returns to the New World and sets the table for the adventures that we already know.

I'm not familiar with the Johnston McCulley's original novel and I only know the character from the various silly TV shows and sometimes less funny films. Thus, I rely on other people's reports when I say that Allende takes aspects from all of these various retellings and weaves her story of Zorro's childhood to kind of fit them all. Even with my limited knowledge and memory, I recognised many of these aspects, and was impresses by Allende's imagination and talent in making all of them fit the story that she had to tell.

Unfortunately, the novel does not come without weaknesses. One definite problem is that the story is "told" by a relatively omnipotent narrator whose identity is revealed at the end of the novel. This means that we only get an occasional line of dialogue and most of the story is about telling the reader what happened rather than showing it happen, which would make it more exciting and enjoyable to read. Still, I enjoyed the humour that Allende brought into the story and the occasional witty stab at women and men and their various insecurities were very entertaining and these kept me going even when the storytelling style tried to discourage me. A detail that annoyed me from historical point of view was the way Allende handled the retreat of the French forces from Spain: it is made to seem that Spanish rebels did all the work and there's not even a single mention of the British troops in Portugal and Spain. We also get sword blades emitting sparks then they hit each other and bullwhips used to cross chasms, both of which you'd find impossible in non-fantasy contexts, but I let these details slide since they are definitely part of the pulp fiction genre (even my hero Indiana Jones is guilty of the misuse of bullwhips!).

Overall, I recommend the book to enthusiastic fans of Zorro, and historical fiction fans will respect the abundance of historical detail. However, those looking for a historical adventure may be disappointed with the slow pace and overall lack of action in this novel. Even when action does take place, it is dulled somewhat by the choice of the storytelling style. From this point of view, you should probably take .75 points off my final score.