Book Review: The Spy by Paul Coelho

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This short novel by Paul Coelho begins with British reporter Henry Wales’ eyewitness account of the execution by firing squad on 15 October 1917 of Margaretha Zelle otherwise known as Mata Hari.

Of a middle-class Dutch family, Margaretha was brought up by an uncle after her parents died. At school she was raped by her headmaster and to escape her situation she quickly married a much older officer in the Dutch Colonial Army, Rudolf MacLeod, and moved to the Dutch East Indies with him. Unfortunately the marriage was extremely abusive. After the death of one of their children, the couple returned to the Netherlands. Margaretha separated from her husband and moved to Paris, eventually divorcing him. Macleod refused to pay the required maintenance so Margaretha struggled to support her daughter, working, among other things, as a circus horse rider and as an artist’s model before finally turning to exotic dance. When Macleod failed to return their daughter following a visit, Margaretha did not have the financial resources to fight him. As an exotic dancer, Margaretha took the stage name Mata Hari (‘eye of the sun’ in Malay) and presented herself as Javanese princess immersed in the art of sacred Indian dance. As Mata Hari, she was an immense success. She moved in wealthy circles and became the mistress of powerful men. By the time World War I broke out, she was living more as a courtesan than a dancer and became a possibly deliberately ineffective double-agent.

Coelho’s novel is in three parts, a letter by Margaretha to her lawyer Édouard Clunet to be read after her death and passed on to her daughter, a list of the contents of her trunk and, finally, a letter from Clunet to Margaretha written after her death.

Margaretha’s life was fascinating yet the letter which makes up Margaretha’s section of the novel lacks the emotional depth that is expected in a first person retelling of a life. It glides over what would have been heart wrenching elements in her life such as the death of her son in Java and the loss of her daughter – she appears almost emotionless. Parts of Margaretha’s life are not explored at all such as her determined struggle out of poverty on her arrival in Paris. In Coelho’s retelling, Margaretha seems rather shallow and given to trite aphorisms such as ‘When we don’t know where life is taking us, we are never lost’ and ‘Honesty has a way of dissolving lies’. Yet Paris in the early years of the early 20th century is brought vividly to life and we get a strong sense of the milieu in which Mata Hari moved at the height of her career as a dancer and courtesan.

It is such a pity that this novel does not examine the complexities of Margaretha Zelle’s life. A woman who could face a firing squad hands unbound, without a blindfold, and who collapsed gracefully, her head erect, when shot deserves a larger novel which retells her life with truthful complexity.

The most positive review I have been able to find is from the Times of India, yet this too has reservations. Most are similar to this review. Ultimately The Spy is very readable, and as a story it works but my main issue with it is that it takes a real life and doesn’t do it justice. I do not believe the lives of those who lived before us are simply material to be pillaged and used in any way we wish (I intend to write more about this issue later). Still I am glad I read The Spy because it has prompted me to find out more about Mata Hari and have now placed Femme Fatale: Love, Lies and the Unknown Life of Mata Hari by Pat Shipman on my reading list for 2017.

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