Of the many Latin American writers who have appeared in the last few decades, Isabel Allende is certainly one of the more popular among U.S. readers. This popularity, no doubt, stems from the fact that Allende is first and foremost a rousing storyteller. She may dabble in that distinctly Latin phenomenon called magical realism, but at heart she is a historical novelist with a flair for the dramatic that teeters on, but never falls off of, the edge of believability. Her delightful new novel, Zorro, is no exception a compelling blend of history, both real and imagined.

At first glance, it might appear odd that Allende has chosen Zorro as a subject. The legendary action hero of pulp novels and Hollywood serials seems to have little in common with the strong-minded Chilean heroines of The House of Spirits or Daughter of Fortune. But a typical Allende character is often poised between two worlds, and Zorro, as she casts him, struggles to carve an identity from a duality of cultures. Zorro is, in effect, a prequel to all those rip-roaring old movies the story of how the legend came to be.

Born near the San Gabriel pueblo, in Alta California, at the end of the 18th century, the boy who will become Zorro is the child of a Spanish military officer and a half-Spanish, half-Shoshone woman with a warrior past. From the start, Diego de la Vega straddles two worlds the life of privilege on his father's land-grant rancho, and days spent among the surrounding, impoverished Indian population. His best friend is his "milk brother," Bernardo, a full-blooded Indian. From Diego's grandmother, the shaman-like healer White Owl, the boys learn about okahuŽ, or five basic virtues: honor, justice, respect, dignity and courage. These attributes will mold the fundamental character of Zorro as surely as what he learns from the book his father orders him from Spain Treatise on Fencing and Dueling by Maestro Manuel Escalante.

At 15, Diego is sent to Spain for a "proper" education, and in Barcelona he lives with the de Romeu family. These are the years of Napoleonic rule, and Tom‡s de Romeu is an ardent Francophile. Of course the political winds inevitably shift, and de Romeu is carted off to prison as a traitor, jeopardizing the fates of his daughters, Juliana and Isabel, whom he places in Diego's care. Lovely Juliana is the object of Diego's unrequited affections, a distinction he shares with the wealthy Rafael Moncada. The animosity these two young men develop eventually fuels a full-blown rivalry that far exceeds courtship. The process by which Diego takes on the alter ego of Zorro is a gradual one. In Barcelona, he studies fencing with Maestro Escalante, and is inducted into La Justicia, a secret society that fights the oppressive French, and later their no-better Spanish successors. The dashing black attire Diego borrows from famed buccaneer Jean Lafitte, who abducts Diego and the de Romeu sisters off the coast of Louisiana when they are en route to California. The trademark mask, Allende suggests with characteristic humor, he dons to cover his unattractive, protruding ears.

Allende has always been a bounteous storyteller, and Zorro does not disappoint. For aficionados of the 18th-century adventures of Dumas, the novel has transcontinental sea voyages, pirates, Goya-esque firing squads and daring rescues under cover of night. The story wends its way through the late Inquisition, the American slave trade, and the mistreatment of the native population in the New World. There is plenty of romance, passionate if chaste, and even a little voodoo. And, as one might expect, plenty of swashbuckling antics on the part of Zorro.

As always, Allende has gentle messages to impart about historical injustices, but mostly Zorro is a highly entertaining adventure story, one that suits the sense of fun that has always lain beneath the surface of her best work. As a transplant herself, now living in California, the Peruvian-born, Chilean-raised Allende knows that we are all complicated human beings, with complex back stories, and that it is impossible to peg anyone as merely this thing or that. Zorro, she suggests, is the embodiment of our cultural schizophrenia a classic American hero for all who would be hard pressed to pin down precisely what an "American" is. Robert Weibezahl's first novel, The Wicked and the Dead, will be published this summer.

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