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Book Review – Paulo Coelho’s The Spy

Fans of Paulo Coelho will find The Spy unlike his more prosaic narratives such as The Alchemist. Woven around the events of the First World War, The Spy promises to be Mata Hari’s last confessional without as much soul-searching as you might expect of an “innocent” prisoner awaiting the French firing squad. Famous as the seductive dancer who brought the “religiousness” and “disinhibition” from faraway lands to France, The Spy traces Mata Hari’s journey from being Margaretha Zelle of Leeuwarden, Netherlands to her eventual conviction as a spy for the Germans.

Beginning with her departure for Leiden to train as a kindergarten teacher, the dichotomy of Margaretha’s familiar surroundings and the impending turbulence is most represented by her mother’s gift of tulip seeds. “A symbol of the country” and her destiny or perhaps just Calvinist ideals, the sexual assault by her Leiden school’s principal ensures Margaretha’s restlessness in “Calvinist Holland” and propels her to respond to military officer’s Rudolf MacLeod offer for marriage.

While the journey to Indonesia with her husband promises a romantic sojourn in exotic lands, reality only brings her the conventional life of the military wife. Even as she suffers through an occasionally abusive marriage, fate brings her to an event featuring Java dancers and a bloody suicide that causes her to bolt back home. Adopting her nom de scène as she leaves her former life behind for her dreams to shine in the City of Light, she arrives in Paris during the 1900 World Fair.

As Coelho sketches her journey as “a classical dancer to oriental music”, The Spy is peppered with political and cultural references of early 19th century Europe including Freud, Pablo Picasso, and the Émile Zola’s infamous letter J’Accuse. However, despite the occasional emotional insight, Coelho misses the mark in engaging the reader in the life of one of the most famous entertainers in the world.

Even if the matter-of-fact narrative is considered to portray Mata Hari’s general appearance of divaesque nonchalance, The Spy seems dry given she writes her final letter within the confines of Saint-Lazare prison infested with rats and “used only to break the spirits of those who thought they were strong – women like” Mata Hari. And while liberal France may have allowed her nudist seductions on the stage, the narrative suggests her “high-society” exaggerations resulted in the accusation by Captain Georges Ladoux and arrest on February 13, 1917. Her subsequent confessions elicited by prosecutor of the Third War Council, Captain Pierre Bouchardon ensure her death sentence which was executed on October 15, 1917 – Mata Hari was neither bound nor blindfolded; she stood, gazing steadfastly at her executioners, as the priest, the nuns, and her lawyer stepped away.

Considering the Parisian entertainment scene in the early 19th century and the book’s flamboyant protagonist, the glamour seems insipid, and the narrative is uninspiring with Coelho’s literary sparkle experienced only infrequently – “I was an exotic bird traversing an earth ravaged by humanity’s poverty of spirit.” Perhaps the author was so enamored by the mystery that is Mata Hari as to fall short of infusing The Spy with her glittering persona.

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