The Spy is Coelho’s account of the accused World War 1 double Spy – Mata Hari. He places his story close to the real facts; well of course in his own style. For those who aren’t familiar with who Mata Hari is, this book could be an eye opener on who she was. I wouldn’t call it a spy thriller, but a historical drama pre-World War 1, written in an autobiographical style. Not a very bulky book, I managed to complete it in a single reading.
The Spy- Story of Mata Hari
Mata Hari was executed by a firing squad in Paris on Oct. 15, 1917. Born Margaretha Zelle to a bourgeois family in Holland, she was raped by her school principal at the age of 16. Desperate to leave Holland soon after, she marries a Dutch army captain and moves to Indonesia. However, the officer abuses her physically and sexually for years. After attending a military function, where she witnesses another military wife’s suicide and a performance by Javanese dancers, Margaretha is inspired to rebel and return to Europe.
She soon makes her way to Paris, and reincarnates herself as Mata Hari, to become an erotic dancer where she combines Java-esque dance moves and strip tease. With her titillating performances, she quickly catapults to fame in the priciest nightclubs and becomes the toast of Paris. At a time when tensions among nations build up, Mata Hari is invited to perform in Berlin. Oblivious to the approaching hostilities of the War, she goes only to find that she is being recruited as a spy for the Kaiser. What follows is a twist of fate for Mata Hari and she is caught in a web of political Vendetta.
“Love is an act of faith & its face should always be covered in mystery. Every moment should be lived with feeling & emotion because if we try to decipher it & understand it, the magic disappears.”
― Paulo Coelho,
The book traces the entire story of Mata Hari through two fictional letters- one written by Mata Hari to her defense attorney, M. Clunet; and another written by Clunet to Mata Hari. I liked this style, where Mata Hari narrates her own story, unmasking her persona, life and desires. The helplessness in Clunet on not being able to save her from the firing squad is well depicted too. Through this narration, Coelho has brought out facets of Mata Hari, as a deeply flawed woman, and whose sexuality helped her gain power and favors. She has the skill to influence men, having her own inflated sense of power, very often behaving recklessly.
What failed in the book
Despite bringing about a sympathetic feel to Mata Hari, I found her depiction pretty sketchy. The book breathes and speaks Mata Hari. Yet, I felt an element of inadequacy in the story line. There seemed an abruptness in the way the book saw its end.
Take away from the book
Not really Paulo Coelho’s usual, but surely worth a one time read. If I had to pick out one thing that lingered on after I closed that last page, it is the fact that Mata Hari defied male expectations of her time and dared to live an unconventional life. And that’s one reason why her story deserves a read.