Mata Hari really deserves better than she has been getting in the literary department. First there was Mata Hari’s Last Dance by Michelle Moran that made her inexplicably obtuse and naive considering her accomplishments. Now Paulo Coelho gives us The Spy which seems to be nothing more than a contrivance for some New Age aphorisms. He sees her as someone who was an emancipated woman, that freedom was her crime, but ignores the reality that made her “free”.
The real Mata Hari is more interesting. Margaretha Zelle MacLeod was a brave woman who fled sexual abuse and rape by a school headmaster by marrying a man she met by answering an ad. She moved with her husband to Indonesia and discovered that she went from the frying pan to the fire.
He was an abusive man whose gave her syphilis and nearly killed her on more than one occasion. His syphilis likely infected their two children. Their son died, and their daughter, Non, survived. They alleged that a nanny poisoned the children, but historians think it was a cover story as no one was charged. They divorced and she got custody but he refused to pay child support and she eventually gave her daughter back to her ex-husband because he could afford to care for her. Coelho reveals the abuse and the cheating, but ignores that she tried many “respectable” careers for women, trying to support herself and her daughter, before becoming Mata Hari. She did not leave her daughter lightly or ever forget her. She wrote to his cousin confessing that she slept with men for money, “Don’t think that I’m bad at heart, I have done it only out of poverty.”
From this desperation, she forged a career as a dancer and as woman who slept with men for money and favors. Coelho presents her as a libertine, a free-love free spirit, emancipated. She was not. In reality, she wrote, “My own husband has given me a distaste for matters sexual such as I cannot forget,” That of course is not in this book because it contradicts his story of a free woman. Reality was more complicated, a woman who did not so much choose her profession as accept it, and once accepting it, pursued it to the heights of fame and celebrity. To me it seems that using men for fame, wealth, and power came from rage at how they had used her, not vanity and greed. If greed were her motivation, she would not have tried many other occupations first.
It’s been ninety-nine years since Mata Hari was executed. As confidential documents have been declassified, the evidence make clear she was innocent, convicted as a scapegoat for military failures. World War I was a bloodbath, a war of attrition that slaughtered 60% of the men of a generation. Those who made the decisions could not pay, but a foreigner, a prostitute, a nude dancer, she could pay, and pay with her life. Her story is dramatic and oh-so-very moral. A woman transgresses and climbs high but then is brought low, punished for her transgressions, punished for being independent and greedy and vain and for sleeping around. The story of Mata Hari is pure slut-shaming.
Unless the story is real and tells the truth about where she came from, what her motivations were, and how determinedly she dragged herself up from poverty and desperation. Coelho does not do that at all. He makes it sound like she did it easily, she goes to Paris, meets the right people and she’s rich. She never misses her daughter or agonizes over her loss. She’s shallow and stupid, meeting Freud and Stravinsky and others and forgetting their first names, a name dropper who can’t remember the name…pathetic.
With her recently released letters that reveal her own thoughts about her career and her daughter, it seems inexcusable to me that she is still presented as a sexual libertine seeking fame and money, rather than the far more nuanced and complicated woman she really was. Worse, to have her struggle exploited as a vehicle for pabulum like “when we don’t know where life is taking us, we are never lost” or “an artist who desires very little and achieves it has failed in life”
Part One of the book is a letter written by Mata Hari to her lawyer and it does not feel authentic, but it is tolerable next to the histrionic letter written by her lawyer that makes up Part Two. It was only because the book is short, closer to a novella than a novel, and I was so close to finishing, that I kept reading through Part Two. Consider this gem when speaking of the injustice of her fate, “it will continue to happen until the end of time, or until man finds out he is not only what he thinks, but mostly what he feels. The body tires easily, but the spirit is always free and will help us get out, one day, from this infernal cycle of repeating the same mistakes every generation.”
I don’t recommend this book. It’s an inauthentic story by a writer who prefers to push his own philosophy rather than seek the real woman hiding behind the myth. It seems unjust that this woman who was abused her school, her husband, many men and her adopted country, used and betrayed and executed as a scapegoat continues to be exploited and abused by writers who deny her complexity and the very real grit and courage she had.