Mata Hari was born Margaretha Zelle in Holland at the end of the 19th century. At just 18, desperate to escape her dull life, she answered a newspaper advertisement from Dutch Colonial Army Captain Rudolf MacLeod who was looking for a wife. The marriage enhanced her status, made her financially secure and provided an opportunity to travel to the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia).
Her husband abused her and, following severe illnesses of both her children, from which her son died, she left her husband and returned to Europe with her daughter. Zelle moved to Paris and tried many ways to support her and her daughter ‘respectably’ but with no financial support from her estranged husband she had no option but to send Nonnie to live with her father. It was now she transformed herself into Mati Hari, inventing an exotic background and began her career as a dancer and courtesan, basing her repertoire on the exotic eastern dances she had first seen in the Dutch East Indies.
The book uses the tired literary device of letters, one written to her lawyer by Mata Hari from a French prison following her conviction as a German spy, and one to her from him, going someway to explaining why she was convicted on such dubious evidence. Given just these sketchy details of her life, without even venturing into her career as a spy, one might expect Coelho to have written a thrilling historical drama; a positive feminist vision of Mata Hari challenging the social mores and conventions of her time; and/or story with fascinating insights into a time of such upheaval, politically, socially and morally around WWI. Sadly, one is destined to be disappointed.
I had assumed the reason for the fictionalisation of her life was to provide Coehlo with the opportunity to examine the personality of the woman; the reasons behind her actions might have been explored but there is little insight into what made Mata Hari the woman she was. Given that she was a cultural icon in the early years of last century, as a ‘real’ person she is downright anonymous in Coelho’s text and thus not very interesting. As Ben East notes in his review, ‘Coelho does Hari a major disservice by skimming over her personality in favour of pages devoted to the contents of her suitcases’.
My hopes for a positive portrayal of an independent woman, raised by the closing words of the first chapter, ‘may it [the future] never see me as victim, but as someone who moved forward with courage, fearlessly paying the price she had to pay’, were quickly dashed (page 15). The overwhelming feeling when reading the book was frustration and disappointment that the author had chosen to portray Hari as full of self-pity and bitterness.
I don’t know why life made me go through so much in so little time…To see what I was made of. To give me experience. But there were other methods…It did not need to drown me in the darkness of my own soul or make me cross through this forest filled with wolves…without a single hand to guide me. (Page 104)
This is the first book by Coehlo I have read and I understand he is somewhat of a self-help/pop-philosopher with celebrity readers such as Will Smith and Madonna. His earlier book The Alchemist has been translated into more languages than any other living writer’s work and is credited with inspiring and transforming lives. All I can say in conclusion is that after reading The Spy I am not the least inspired to read any more of his work.
Reviewed by Jan Kershaw
Rating out of 10: 5
Released by: Penguin Australia
Release Date: November 2016
RRP: $29.99 hardback, $14.99 eBook