Theater of Cruelty

The junk Zorro

Why is Isabel Allende's Zorro "serious" literature?


Isabel Allende has written a novel about the masked hero Zorro, and the book is offered almost naturally through the Book Club New Books. Who is guilty of customary literature snobbery when offering the book through his member magazine: "The Zorro character has been around for a long time, but never in serious literature." I haven't read Allendes Fox, but how is it possible to come to terms with such attitudes when the character Zorro was actually created by a fiction writer? Allende is of the same opinion: “What are you talking about? I'm a serious writer, "she replied according to The Guardian when John Gertz – who owns the Zorro rights – offered Allende to write a novel about Zorro.

Forget everything you already knew about Zorro. Forget all the previous movies, TV shows, comics and books about the masked hero. For now, Isabel Allende arrives, and it is only now that Zorro becomes art. Serious literature. No bullshit, cliché-filled language and easy solutions. Zorro himself would probably have multiplied a large "Z" in the front doors of both Allende and the Book Club New Books.

Don Diego Vega, aka Zorro, fought the cause of the oppressed in Spanish California in the 1800s, and is a classic heroic figure. Allende describes him as a mix of Peter Pan, Robin Hood and Che Guevara, and Zorro has entered our consciousness in such a way that most of us are hardly able to respond if asked about how the character was created. Is Zorro originally a Robin Hood-like myth, a TV series, a movie, novel or cartoon? The adventure began in 1919. In a novel. Of the junk kind.

Most of us know Zorro best from the TV series of the 1950s and 1990s, not to mention the movie films starring Douglas Fairbanks and Antonio Banderas in the lead roles. But the masked man first fought in a novel by Johnston McCulley. The Curse of Capistrano It was called when it was first released in 1919, but was relaunched under a new name due to the silent film The Mark of Zorro from 1920. It begins: "Again the sheet of rain beat against the roof of red Spanish tile, and the wind shrieked like a soul in torment, and smoke puffed from the big fireplace as the sparks were showered over the hard dirt floor. »

Before you say "it was a dark and stormy night": The Mark of Zorro is not "serious" literature to the extent that the book is on the syllabus and praised by literary scholars worldwide. But it offered serious entertainment for many readers, who increasingly demanded more. This was in the golden age of pulp literature, as the novel led to popular culture and American writers created everlasting heroes such as Philip Marlowe, Sam Spade, Biggles, Conan, Tarzan and The Shadow. McCulley initially thought he should only write one story about Zorro, which is why he revealed the hero's identity already in the first book. Over the years, the whole 60 Zorro adventures came from his hand.

In Allendes Fox she paints the story on a broader canvas, with an elaborate prehistory, an extended personal gallery and a more thorough historical backdrop. In this way, she takes up the thread from her historical novels A daughter of happiness (1999) and Aurora – A portrait in sepia (2001). Nothing wrong with that, and such revisionist treatments of icons from popular culture are not at all unusual. Both Superman, Tintin and Tarzan have been subjected to the same treatment. At the same time, there is no denying that this is yet another successful stunt by the licensors of the Zorro brand. Allende Fox is a commissioned novel, adapted to the market just about the same time as the second Zorro movie starring Antonio Banderas.

This is a smart move. The usual thinking is to hire a writer to write a novel based on the film script, but the PR effect is far greater by getting such a reputable writer as Allende to tell his version of Zorro. The masked hero has such an iconic power that it encourages ever-new versions, and so Allende's attempt is just another example in a long line. But when you call this the first serious novel, as the Book Club New Books does, you only spit on Johnston McCully's creative power.

Zorro is a reminder of the time when the novel was the driving force of popular culture, and it was after all McCulley who created the character and the adventure that, 85 years later, still stimulates the imagination of filmmakers, writers and audiences around the world. If such a literary achievement does not deserve the label "serious", it really says most about the "serious" literature.

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