Thursday, 5 January 2017

Review: 'The Spy' by Paulo Coelho

Mata Hari is a woman who has fascinated me for years. You should know by now that I'm all about women breaking gender norms. She was as enigmatic as they come and her end only aroused more questions than answers. Not only did she live during one of the most interesting times in European history, she played a very interesting role in that time. Combine my obsession with Mata Hari with my interest in Paulo Coelho, author of the cult classic The Alchemist, which I enjoyed, and you should have the perfect recipe. Unfortunately somewhere in the kitchen, however, something went wrong and I was left slightly unhappy with what was served. Thanks to Random House UK and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 22/11/2016
Publisher: Random House UK, Cornerstone

When Mata Hari arrived in Paris she was penniless. 
Soon she was feted as the most elegant woman in the city. 
A dancer who shocked and delighted audiences; a confidant and courtesan who 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. Until, in 1917 she was arrested in her hotel room on the Champs Elysees and accused of espionage. 
Told through Mata's final letter, THE SPY tells the unforgettable story of a woman who dared to break the conventions of her time, and paid the price.
Mata Hari was born to Dutch parents as Margaretha Zelle in 1876 in Leeuwarden, the Netherlands. At the age of 18 she answered a marriage ad in a newspaper and married Rudolf MacLeod a year later. He was a Army Captain in the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia) and a ticket out of a life that was already becoming stifling. Unfortunately, he was also an alcoholic and abusive. The couple eventually returned to the Netherlands after the death of their youngest child and divorced. In 1903 Marghareta moved to Paris and in 1905 Mata Hari started making waves amongst the social and artistic elite. Mata Hari danced unlike any other, apparently exotic and other, yet incredibly sensual and physical at the same time. Over the years she became more known as a courtesan than  a dancer, embodying the Bohemian spirit of freedom and beauty. But as WWI loomed on the horizon, her fame turned into infamy. Then in 1917 she was arrested in Paris for spying for the Germans and thereby causing the deaths of 50,000 men. She was executed by a firing squad the same year at the age of 41. Margaretha's life was a turbulent and almost permanently outrageous one. She broke a lot of the rules in places for women both then and now, and telling her story is one hell of a mission. Despite the title of his novel referring to a very specific part of her life, The Spy does cover her whole life, attempting to give the reader a real insight into her life.

As I said above, something about this novel left me unhappy and even perturbed. On the one hand Coelho's novel provides a fascinating insight into the life and mind of a fascinating woman. He takes his liberties with history, moving events around to fit his own ideas, but he is honest about it and it works for the novel. I also don't think that Margaretha wouldn't have minded, considering the frequent liberties she herself took when telling her own story. On the other hand, however, his version of Mata Hari was strangely disaffected by most things. The way I imagine Mata Hari is as someone who lived intensely, saw the world around her, both its freedoms and limitations, and wanted to make the most of it. Coelho's Mata Hari, however, is uncaring about the events leading up to World War I and the people in her life. This could be a consequence of the form of the novel, more on that later, but it still left me slightly disenchanted. Who knew the proverb to never meet your heroes also counted for literary rendezvous'?

Coelho's writing can be stunning. In The Alchemist it is at times beautifully descriptive and then obtusely convoluted. In The Spy there are also moments of beauty, stunning quotes that really give an insight into how someone like Mata Hari might have felt. At other times, however, the pace is too high to truly make the reader care. The novel has the perfect set up, starting at the very end. The reader first meets Mata Hari in French prison and witnesses her final moments. From there Coelho lets Mata Hari "take the word" through a letter to her lawyer, written in the days before her execution. It's a brilliant way to bring the reader closer to her, but much of Coelho's work is undone when the novel ends with the lawyer's "reply". It really was a shame because it almost overturns all the work he has done to make Mata Hari appear sympathetic and for me the magic ended very quickly towards the end. Although Coelho does say he has taken liberties, there is a lot he didn't touch upon that would have fit beautifully with the story he does tell. As historian Julie Wheelwright has said of Mata Hari, she was:
"...an independent woman, a divorcee, a citizen of a neutral country, a courtesan and a dancer, which made her a perfect scapegoat for the French, who were then losing the war. She was kind of held up as an example of what might happen if your morals were too loose."
Personally I would have loved to read more about how perception of her changed, how her life in Paris was. Some of the most beautiful quotes from the novel are when Mata Hari lingers on the opportunities she took, the boundaries she broke and the expectations she dashed. More of that would have been welcome, but then The Spy is only 208 pages and not a biography.

I give this novel...

3 Universes!

I enjoyed The Spy, it is a short and quick read, well-written and mostly engaging. With any other person at the centre, however, this novel would not have worked. Coelho doesn't do much to add to Mata Hari's mystery, but at least he also doesn't take away from it too much. I'd recommend this to people interested in finding out more about Mata Hari and fans of Coelho himself.

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