I have just finished reading “The Spy” (2016), Brazilian author Paulo Coelho’s latest novel. It takes as its starting point the real life of Dutch exotic dancer and spy Mata Hari, and fictionalises it in a letter she sends to her lawyer while in jail, just before she is shot by firing squad. There is also the letter written by her defence attorney : he will hand it to her on the day of her execution, the only moment he will be allowed to meet her. Here we acknowledge the many obstacles he has encountered while trying to defend her, his impossibility to cross-examine the prosecution’s witnesses, to examine both his own witnesses and some incriminating evidence directly.
Margaretha Zelle, better known as Mata Hari, was a crucial figure in early 20th-century Europe. She was a dancer and a courtesan: as a self-created exotic dancer she shocked and delighted audiences; as a courtesan, she fascinated the richest and most powerful men of the time.
The story is told in the protagonist’s voice through that final letter, when she does not yet know she is about to die. She portrays the various steps of her life: from her semi-privileged upbringing in Holland, to an abusive marriage to an army officer in the Dutch East Indies, and her arrival in Paris, after she has abandoned her daughter and her husband.
When Mata Hari reaches Paris she is penniless, but within months she becomes the most celebrated woman in the city. She performs in exotic and revealing clothing, posing as a Javanese princess who has learnt the art of sacred Indian dance when a child. She mingles in wealthy circles and collects lovers, daring to defy convention.
Under the burdens of World War I, Mata Hari’s lifestyle brings her under suspicion and she becomes an implausible double agent, but the perfect scapegoat for French military failures ( which explains why the case against her received maximum publicity in the French press, and led to exaggerate her importance in the war)
In 1917, she is arrested in her hotel room on the Champs Elysées and put on trial, accused of espionage. Then, although no definite evidence can be produced against her, she is tried as a German spy and executed by firing squad on 15 October 1917, at the age of 41: the woman, whose name meant Eye of Dawn in Indonesian. died early in the morning
In my opinion, the novel lacks great insight into her personality, which seems to have little depth or complexity.
Instead, it devotes pages to the contents of her suitcase and gives the picture of an incoherent shallow woman, who, from time to time, drops in the names of famous acquaintances, such as a man “called Freud – I can’t remember his first name” , “an ugly, wide-eyed impolite man who fancied himself the greatest of the greats.” (Picasso), or the author of The Rite Of Spring “ an unknown Russian composer whose name I still cannot remember.”
Also the book “called the Koran” is about “some prophet whose name I also can’t recall.”
By reading her ideas on sex, body, and self-expression, so different from the social conventions of the time, it may be perceived that it was the violation of those norms that put her in danger. Maybe she wasn’t entirely innocent, but she wasn’t the great spy whose information sent thousands of soldiers to their deaths, either.
“Innocent? Perhaps that is not the right word. I was never innocent, not since I first set foot in this city I love so dearly. I thought I could manipulate those who wanted state secrets. I thought the Germans, French, English, Spanish would never be able to resist me—and yet, in the end, I was the one manipulated. The crimes I did commit, I escaped, the greatest of which was being an emancipated and independent woman in a world ruled by men.”