By Paulo Coelho
When Mata Hari arrived in Paris she was penniless. Within months she was the most celebrated woman in the city.
As a dancer, she shocked and delighted audiences; as a courtesan, she bewitched the era’s richest and most powerful men.
But as paranoia consumed a country at war, Mata Hari’s lifestyle brought her under suspicion. In 1917, she was arrested in her hotel room on the Champs Elysees, and accused of espionage.
Told in Mata Hari’s voice through her final letter, The Spy is the unforgettable story of a woman who dared to defy convention and who paid the ultimate price.
Before I started this book I had heard Mata Hari mentioned on a few occasions, always negatively and in a derogatory manner, but I didn’t know anything beyond her name. I chose to read this book when I read the blurb because I wanted to know more about this woman who inspired such negative comments so long after her death. I am so pleased I did because this was one of the most interesting books I have read this year. Also, I love the beautiful way with words Paolo Coelho has and I certainly wasn’t disappointed whilst reading this book.
The book begins with a quote from the bible before going on to advise the reader that this story is based on real events. Before I had time to process this I was looking at a picture of a woman in front of firing squad, a very stark and slightly harrowing introduction to the book.
The opening lines of the book describe how shortly before 5am on the 15th October 1917 a group of 18 men climbed to cell 12 of Saint-Lazare, the women’s prison in Paris at that time. “With great affection and care, Sister Leonide draped her arm around the sleeping body. The woman struggled to waken, as though disinterested in anything. According to the nun’s statement, when she finally awoke, it was as though she emerged from a peaceful slumber. She remained serene when she learned her appeal for clemency, made days earlier to the president of the republic, had been denied. It was impossible to decipher if she felt sadness or a sense of relief that everything was coming to an end.”
What astounded me was that even when she was about to face the firing squad Mata Hari still chose to take the time to take care of her appearance. “She drew on her black stockings, which seemed grotesque under the circumstances, and stepped into a pair of high-heeled shoes adorned with silk laces. As she rose from the bed, she reached for the hook in the corner of her cell, where floor-length fur coat hung, its sleeves and collar trimmed with the fur of another animal, possibly fox. She slipped it over the heavy silk kimono in which she had slept.
It is customary to always put a blank cartridge in one, so that everyone can claim not to have fired the deadly shot – seemed to relax. Soon their business would be over. This is what happened with the events leading to Mata Hari’s death, no one person was culpable but when each was added up to lead to her being accused of being a spy and having to go before a firing squad.
I loved the little photographs peppered throughout the book; they made the story seem more real and personal somehow. Perhaps this was because I could better picture the protagonist.
Part one of the tale is told from Mata Hari’s perspective and immediately provides us with our first glimpse of her state of mind. “I have always been an optimistic woman, but time has left me bitter, alone and sad.”
“If things turn out as I hope, you will never receive the letter. I’ll have been pardoned. After all the time I spent my life cultivating influential friends. I will hold on to the letter so that, one day, my only daughter might read it to find out who her mother was.”
She maintains her innocence and claims that key documents were tampered with to make sure they had ‘evidence’ against her. “Innocent? Perhaps that is not the right word. I was never innocent, not since I first set foot in the city I love so dearly. I thought I could manipulate those who wanted state secrets. .. and yet in the end I was the one manipulated.”
“The crimes I did commit, I escaped, the greatest of with which was being an emancipated and independent woman in a world ruled by men. I was convicted of espionage even though the only concrete I traded was the gossip from high-society salons.”
She argues that she was born at the wrong time and she hopes that she will be remembered in the future “not as a victim, but as someone who moved forward with courage. Fearlessly paying the price she had to pay.”
Whilst reminiscing we learn of her family background and how investments made by her parent meant that she was able to go to private school, study dance and take riding lessons. She says her parents cannot be blamed for how she turned out other than the town she grew up in which was a backwater in her eyes.
In this same section she talks about the accusations of prostitution: “Yes, I was a prostitute – if by that you mean someone who receives favours and jewellery in exchange for affection and pleasure.”
The parts of the book written as Mata Hari are narrated in a contradictory and off-hand sort of way. The tone dismisses some things that occur and puts a great emphasis on things like fashion and the way she could draw in the crowds, things that seem frivolous. However, there are some moments in the book where you come to feel that the things she did, particularly surrounding the accusations of being a spy, were done from naivety and the desire to get herself out of a potentially dangerous situation.
Mata Hari was born Margaretha Zelle but changed her name later in life to Mata Hari, shortly before she embarked on her dancing career. I enjoyed reading the descriptions of her dancing career in the newspaper clippings. Mata Hari claimed it was her fame which brought the accusations of espionage upon her.
When I am preparing to read a book for review I normally use the highlighter function on my kindle so when I come to write the review I can make note of the highlighted passages. This book had so many bits of interest to me that barely a paragraph wasn’t highlighted.
She comes across as a very strong minded woman, a little bit vain and selfish. “All my life I’ve thought and acted like Mata Hari, the woman who has been and will always be the fascination of men and the envy of women. Ever since I left Holland, I’ve lost all sense of distance and danger – neither scares me.”
This story of Mata Hari’s life was fascinating and is definitely one I will read again.
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