In 1998, a book came out that transformed the lives of millions, and still does so today. It’s a book that’s been quoted by people from all walks of life world over as one of their favourite books. The book is called The Alchemist and the author is world-famous Paulo Coelho. With each subsequent book that he put out, it would send the literary world abuzz with excitement and anticipation to see what wisdom he shares through his unique and interesting characters.
Some of his more popular books are Veronika Decides to Die, The Witch of Portobello, Manual of the Warrior of Light, as well his recent best seller Adultery. It was with that level of eagerness that every awaited his latest novel The Spy.
The Spy is a short book and centers around the life of Mata Hari, the female Dutch dancer, exotic courtesan and convicted spy who was executed by a firing squad in 1917. The first chapter draws you right into the final moments of her life at prison and being led out to the grounds to face the men who will execute her. The book is split into three parts, each detailing a section of her tumultuous life.
The source of inspiration for Coelho is the letter that Mata Hari had written to her lawyer, explaining how she ended up in the situation she is in. The point is that Coelho has merely used that a device to create a story of what Mata Hari may have done and said. The Spy is to be read as more as a fictional story based on a real life historical person, as opposed to reading a biography (Coelho acknowledges in the end notes of a better written biography on Mata Hari).
Part I deals with early life of Mata Hari, initially known as Margaretha Zelle, and explores her life as a prostitute who encounters the rich and influential men. She is also a dancer and dreams of going to Paris to perform. She brings unique dance moves, inspired from Egypt, to the delight of the people who flock thetheaters to watch her.
Part II follows her journey into the rest of Europe as she becomes a popular exotic dancer, scandalizing a lot of people and being watched by the old world order who cannot fathom a strong, independent woman who is bold in her dealings with the men and women. She lands in trouble with a wrong man who uses her as a spy for her personal request to move to Paris from Hague, leading to disastrous consequences.
Part III ultimately shows how Mata Hari is accused of being a double spy and ends up being arrested, leading up to her execution.
While the story is known to many, it’s Coelho’s treatment of Mata Hari that’s slightly disappointing. One expects a thrilling, espionage thriller novella, but what we get instead is a brief, skimming over of some of her important moments. Her encounters with Freud and Picasso are merely glanced over, for example. At times, Coelho does a better job of describing the pre-war Paris, or the contents of her luggage for that matter, than he does of what’s happening inside of her mind.
Having said that, there are some interesting moments, but they are far and few in-between. I was somewhat disappointed though given what a huge writer Coelho is. It just felt like he wanted to talk more about a woman who’s bold, independent and assertive, shedding some light on women power and feminist stance that Mata Hari expressed, all in 1917 at a time when an average women was anything but Mata Hari. The Spy is a very short read, more like a novella, and makes for a quick read for those who don’t have time to pick up a book.