Book review – Paulo Coelho’s The Spy

Heard of Mata Hari? The dancer, the spy and the traitor? Well, so-called traitor? Paulo Coelho creates a magical narrative of Mata Hari’s life, written in the form of a letter to her lawyer. She holds nothing back as she relates her life story from the time she is raped by her school principal when she was sixteen, to the time she is shot down by twelve men from the French army.

But first let’s get the basic details out of the way.

Name of the book: The Spy

Author: Paulo Coelho

Translated from Portuguese: Zoe Perry

Published: 2016

Pages: 186 pages (Hardbound edition)

The basic story:

Margaretha Geertruida MacLeod, aka Mata Hari, was born in the Netherlands. After a stormy childhood, where is he brutally raped by her school principal, and a stormier marriage to an officer twenty one years her senior, she escapes to France and begins her career as an exotic dancer. Rather successfully. And with success, fame and high profile lovers, comes the inevitable arrogance, pride and the naivete that these would last forever.

The first world war changes everything. Mata Hari is invited to Russia to perform there (just a week after the Archduke is assassinated) and is recruited as a Russian agent to spy on the French.

Mata Hari hurries back to France, seeks the help of the French counterespionage and offers her services as a double agent. This is where her life starts to tumble.  Both sides think she is working for them, but are suspicious enough to watch her every activity. As the French countryside is invaded by the Russians, the French government seek to shame a public figure (read: scapegoat) in the hope to revive the people’s patriotism. (At least this is Mata Hari’s, and her lawyer’s version of the events). She is arrested, pronounced guilty after a quick trial, and is ordered to be executed by the firing squad.

Why I liked it:

While I have come across the name in some war fiction novels, I have never read about Mata Hari until now. I picked up the book just because it was Coelho’s latest offering. While I was prepared for some self-delusion and arrogance, what struck me, right from the prologue, is the straightforward, sometimes brutal and shocking, reciting of everything that happens to her. She lays no blame on others or herself. It was as if she had numbed herself of all feelings when she strips to become the first nude dancer in France, and that numbness continues as she waits in her prison cell for either the pardon or the firing squad to come.

Coelho has this ability to sink into his character’s skin not just effortlessly, but also with empathy. The narrative leaves no time for one shock to sink in before the next one strikes. In just 186 pages (of which four of them list the items in her trunks at the time of the arrest), there is no attempt to create the historical or political context in the story. Written in the form of a letter, Coelho wastes no word or phrase that does not move the narrative along swiftly to the firing squad. These lines epitomizes Mata Hari’s attitude to her fame and popularity –

“I had long lost any illusion of being loved for who I was and now accepted, with a clean conscience, flowers, flattery, and money that fed my ego and my false identity. For certain I’d go to my grave one day without every knwoing love, but what difference did it make? For me love and power were the same thing.”  Page 87, The Spy by Paulo Coelho.

Coelho also offers the readers a chance to see the whole story from Mata Hari’s lawyer’s point of view. I was delighted to read the brief but well explained forty pages or so of the letter the lawyer writes to Mata Hari just 11 hours before her execution (on October 14, 1917), informing her of the turning down of her appeal for pardon, and the sequence of events that led to her trial. Here we get a glimpse of some of the politicking and deal making that is pretty normal in today’s government circles, as powerful lovers deny any knowledge of her and friends turn away from stepping up to help. The last line in his letter is so abrupt and helpless – “Go with God, my beloved.”

What I did not like:

I was hoping for a biographical sketch that offered more details about the woman, the person and the dancer who had the French in a tizzy! Instead, we get a too brief  outpouring of facts mixed with the right amount of emotions that, though portrays Mata Hari sensationally, left me a bit unsatisfied. I would have liked to know more of her, about her, and from her.

My review

Total Disclaimer Alert! I love Coelho. I am an unashamed fan of his Alchemist. I liked Brida, Veronika Decides To Die and The Devil And Miss Prym. I, however, was shocked by his previous book, “Adultery”. It was trash.

Apart from that aberration, I love his books and this is no exception. I liked the approach, the narrative style, the counter point by the lawyer, and the tragic ending in the epilogue. Prosecutor Andre Mornet concedes to a journalist in 1947 that “Between us, the evidence we had was so poor that it wouldn’t have been fit to punish a cat.”

Here goes my rating: 3.8 out of 5. I would read it again. (Just so you know, I rate Coelho’s Alchemist a 5 and his Adultery a 0.5! Read my review of The Alchemist in an earlier blog.)

Happy reading!


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