The Big Issue : Edition 528
THE BIG ISSUE 13 – 26 JAN 2017 37 THE SPY PAULO COELHO THE HISTORICAL FIGURE of Mata Hari has long been mythologised. Most of us are familiar with the spangly-costumed exotic dancer and courtesan who was convicted of being a double agent and executed by firing squad under charges of espionage for Germany in WWI. What then, could Paulo Coelho, best known for his self-help, inspirational novel The Alchemist, have to add to her story? Not a great deal, as it turns out. His slim novel begins, dramatically enough, with a re-enactment of her final moments in Paris on 15 October 1917, whereupon the 41-year-old Dutch national (whose real name was Margaretha Zelle) refused a blindfold and remained impassive in the last seconds before death. Straddling truth and fiction, The Spy then goes back in time and re-creates her life in a long, rambling letter to her lawyer. The reader learns in quick succession about her privileged family life; how being raped as a teenager led her to associate sex as a loveless, mechanical act; and her impulsive marriage to an abusive army officer in the Dutch East Indies. After a quick mention of childbirth (and several melodramatic losses), Java is soon left behind. She buys a one-way ticket to Paris (the “city of dreams”) and then dances and strips for large audiences and jumps into the beds of various influential men. Given the slim size of the novel, it’s odd what Coelho chooses to include and omit. He devotes, for instance, four pages on the contents of her luggage when she was arrested (16 blouses... eight hairnets...three fans), but doesn’t actually answer some more interesting questions. Why, for example, did she choose the stage name Mata Hari? (Indonesian apparently for Eye of Dawn, but you won’t find that out in this book.) And why did she casually abandon her young daughter to her volatile husband’s care? Though it was widely accepted in the years to come that her conviction for treason was based on the flimsiest of reasons, the events that led to her arrest are shrouded in confusion in The Spy. That she traded military secrets seems a far-fetched accusation, but Coelho is determined to contrive a feminist mouthpiece for his protagonist. She proclaims that the greatest crime she’d committed was to be “an emancipated and independent woman in a world ruled by men”. The overall impression of her here, though, is of a clueless victim rather than a femme fatale. by Thuy On » The Spy is out now. SELECT Covering the standouts in film, music, books and home entertainment RIGHTEO PAULO.