The Spy by Paulo Coelho – book review

One of my goals this year is to read more fiction of some of the great writers. As a Spanish speaker, I am naturally drawn to Paulo Coelo, the great Brazilian writer who holds the world record for most translated books by a living author. He is also the author of the bestseller “The Alchemist”

I picked “The Spy: A Novel of Mata Hari (Vintage International)” which was published in 2016. This book tells the story of Mata Hari through her final letters to her lawyer. Mata Hari (officially Margarethav Geertruida Margreet MacLeod) was a Dutch exotic dancer, courtesan and libertine who was convicted for spying for Germany during WWI and executed by firing squad. She was a crucial cultural figure in the early 20th century and quite controversially viewed. To be honest I did not know much about her, although I probably have heard her name. She has an invisible presence in the 1967 version of Casino Royale. She also appears in one of the episodes of The Adventures of Young Indiana Jones‘.

The novel starts off with Mata Hari’s childhood in a middle class Dutch family and her kindergarten teacher studies in Leiden where she is raped by the principle. She then marries a Dutch Colonial Army Captain and moves to the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia). Here she gives birth to two children but her marriage is unhappy which leads her to abandon the husband. In 1903 she moves penniless and by herself to Pairs. As an exotic dancer she becomes an overnight sensation. Mata Hari’s style and free will-attitude made her a popular woman. In 1912 her success is in decline due to her age and many stage imitations appearing. World War I starts in 1914 which puts her as a Dutch citizen living in Paris into a peculiar situation. After many twists she is arrested in 1917 in Paris for espionage by the French government. At the time France was badly shaken by lost battles and many front line soldiers had been killed. Mata Hari, as an accused German spy, was the perfect scapegoat. “Her only crime was to be an independent woman.” Although she held many important relationships with high ranking French government officials, no one wanted to come to her help in public. Mata Hari is killed by firing squad in November 1917.

The book is a tiny 184 page work which was easy to read. It is told in form of letters to her lawyer before she had to face execution. Although quite unique because of this style, it seems to have a few gaps in her life which I had to research myself. For example the love of her life, a Russian pilot, hardly gets a mention. Overall the book appears to be put together rather in a rush. To conclude “The Spy: A Novel of Mata Hari (Vintage International)” is an easy read. Although it contains substantial gaps, it introduces one of the greatest femme fatales of the 20th Century.

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