The Spy by Paulo Coelho; translated from the Portuguese by Zoë Perry

Brazilian writer, Paulo Coelho, apparently the most translated author in history.

Reading a Paulo Coelho work has always been on my ‘to read’ list but I have never got around to it until now; the result of many birthday gifts recently arriving in my house. It is an episcopal novel being an ‘invention’ of her last written confession given to her lawyer, also a former lover, as she is lead away to be shot by firing squad on open ground just outside the army barracks of Caserne de Vincennes on the eastern skirts of Paris in 1917. She was 41.

Margaretha Geertruida “Margreet”  Zelle was a Dutch girl fostered to relatives when she was 15, when her mother died. She became aware very early that her attractiveness and sexuality were going to be her salvation… they really became her downfall. At 19 she answered an ad in a Dutch newspaper for a bride to Rudolf MacLeod, an army officer, and not a very nice man, in the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia) where she lived for several years until boredom, caprice, led her, penniless, to Paris. She had been enthralled by Javanese dance and excited everyone by performing it in Paris, in a gallery not far from “that dreadful metal tower”. Her version was more to do with strip-tease, which is as remote from Javanese dance as elephants are from ants; but of course, no one knew that; and, besides, orientalism and exoticism were all the rage in Europe at the time. Of course, she needed a name, Mrs. Margreet MacLeod just would not do. She chose a name from the Malay patois of Java (now called Indonesian) for the sun, Mata Hari, literally ‘the eye of the day’. There are many businesses in Indonesia today that bare this name and none of them has anything to do with Mrs. Margreet MacLeod.

If my tone is flippant, so is the book’s.

Coelho obviously assumes that Mata Hari was a victim of her own independence which ran against the male-dominated society of the time and in giving her a voice gives vent to her own redemption. However, what is most obvious is not her independence or originality but her stupidity. If she believed her looks and sex would get her somewhere why marry an unknown man, 21 years her senior via a newspaper ad?

It is a pity that the weight of this work is so feeble.

She certainly had ingenuity and a self-awareness that she used to get what she wanted, but what she wanted was usually men and their nationality was of no interest to her. In this sense, she was indeed a victim but also naïve and foolish given she was ‘working’ in Europe while Europe was at war with itself; her neutral nationality, Dutch, was very flimsy protection indeed, and in her later years her mature feminine body was no longer ripe for dance so it was her reputation alone that got her into the beds of Frenchmen and Germans alike.

She always left her bra on.

However, there was little supportive evidence that she was actually a double agent and she may indeed have been innocent as she professed but she was never good at justifying her past, remembering her motives, or men’s names. She could never remember the name of that “unknown” Russian composer who wrote the music for The Right of Spring  which starred “that idiot” Nijinsky. Her own testimony did most of the damage. The jury took 45 minutes to convict her.

The fault of this book lies with Coelho’s choice to tell the story via her words alone. A letter may contain other characters, dialogue, and description but it is all through one person’s eyes. We know of no other person’s real feelings, love, compassion, support, or faithfulness for this woman. We only know her own version which is really Coelho’s version. It is as if he memorised her Wikipedia entry and tried to colourise it.

“When we don’t know where life is taking us, we are never lost.” That should be on her gravestone.

So I’ve now read a Paulo Coelho book. Pity it was the wrong one.

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