The Spy: A Novel of Mata Hari by Paulo Coelho (Book Review)

The Spy: A Novel of Mata HariThe Spy: A Novel of Mata Hari by Paulo Coelho

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I almost never buy books anymore. Print books have gotten so expensive, and I have limited space to keep them. My gripes about electronic books are the same ones everybody else has. Typos and formatting errors drive me crazy. The worst is that it seems I pay good money only to rent the book after a fashion. It chaps my hide that I can’t loan an ebook to anyone I want to, any time I want to, or give it away. If I paid for the book, it should be mine, to do with exactly as I please.

So, the fact that I bought this book is significant. Well, kinda. It caught my eye in an airport shop, where I was looking for a book of crossword puzzles – not sudoku, or word searches, but crosswords – and they had none. Mata Hari brought up an image for me, the mysterious woman traveling alone, perhaps at the last minute, grabbing a book both as time filler and shield against unwanted conversation. Perhaps that woman is taking off for Morocco with nothing more than her passport and sunglasses and a lipstick, so much more attractive than the prepared and somewhat paranoid traveler who already has in her bag a fully loaded and charged Kindle and a printed book just in case, not to mention a change of underwear. For a two-hour flight with no checked bags, mind you. Perhaps some corner of my mind was pretending I was Mata Hari, just for a little while. Books give us more than the stories inside them.

And that was fun, but the book itself was disappointing.

There is so much that is not here that I expect from a good fictionalized biography. Please note that nothing that follows is a spoiler, because none of it is in the book. What about being an abused wife whose children were allegedly poisoned? What about her former husband forcing her to relinquish her daughter by refusing to pay the ordered support? What about exotic dancing and prostitution because the more respectable things she tried didn’t pan out? What about impending war? What about falling in love with the Russian pilot fighting for France, and accepting the proposal that she spy? What about being hauled off a ship at Falmouth, arrested and interrogated? What about attempting to liaise with and seduce Crown Prince Wilhelm to get military intelligence? What about the German trickery, the French trap? What about…what about…what about…? These major events are barely alluded to or missing entirely. What the hell?

Look, I appreciate a male writer imbuing a woman with inner strength and resourcefulness and the freedom of spirit required to perform artful strip-tease and to be a frank and open courtesan. No argument there. But I suspect the image of Mata Hari as pure libertarian is as inaccurate as it is poetic. Let’s not gloss over how things were for women at that time, how the femme fatale was victimized by patriarchy generally and men specifically, how little choice she probably had. Let’s not gloss over the political considerations, and the heart of a mother who has lost her children to men’s abusive hands, who tried other ways to make a living before resorting to sex (which she reportedly despised after losing her virginity to a pedophile rapist and her subsequent marital experience) to get more for herself than just an apron and an overlord. From what I’ve read, there is no argument that Mata Hari was a spy for France; the debate was whether she was also spying for Germany, a double-agent as accused and convicted and executed. There is so much missing. Why do we hear from only Mata Hari the dancer and courtesan, and nothing from Mata Hari the daughter, Mata Hari the wife, Mata Hari the mother, Mata Hari the lover, Mata Hari the actual spy, doing Mata Hari spy stuff?
Public Domain.

The photo above purports to be of Mata Hari’s execution by firing squad on October 15, 1917 (although it may also be a reconstruction for a movie). Coelho’s writing is lovely, I’ll give him that, and what story there is, is told well, but it’s like the photo – only her death. What about the rest? I learned more about Mata Hari from than I did from this book.

Bookshelves: fictionalized-biography, world-war-i, popular fiction, women, spy-vs-spy, disappointment, reading-in-airports

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Author: Deborah Lee

I like trees, dreaming, magic, books, paper, floating, dreaming, rhinos, rocks, stargazing, wine, dragonflies, trains, and silence to hear the world breathe.

One thought on “The Spy: A Novel of Mata Hari by Paulo Coelho (Book Review)”

  1. Good write UP! I am not a fan of PC as an author. There is much about Mata Hari we don’t know, and much that is glossed over. History – my favorite – is about the people. Battles are won and lost, but people make history. Mata Hari was the enemy, but there is always more to the story.


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