The Spy, Paulo Coelho, 2016

The cover of Paulo Coelho's novel The Spy features an actual photo of Mata Hari wearing an ornate swan head dress.

Yes, I turned gossip into “secrets” because I wanted money and power. But all those who accuse me now know I never revealed anything new. Paulo Coelho

Spoilers

Brazilian author Paolo Coelho brings Mata Hari to life in his espionage novel, The Spy. Formatted as Hari’s final letter to her attorney, Édouard Clunet, and his response, Hari’s life and death unfold in this fictional retelling of real events.

Born Margaretha Zelle in the Netherlands, she had an idyllic childhood until her early teens when her father went bankrupt, her parents divorced and her mother died, all within a three-year span. At 18, she married Dutch Colonial Army Captain Rudolf MacLeod, a man twenty years older than her. He whisked her away to Indonesia, far from her turbulent life and money problems. An unhappy marriage and the loss of a child caused her to flee to Paris.  There, with a dash of cultural appropriation, she transformed herself into Mata Hari, a supposed Javanese princess and exotic dancer. She was the definition of overnight success and supplemented her dancing income by becoming what one could politely call a courtesan.  These connections to high society movers and shakers would be her downfall.

Her rise to fame was quick, but once World War I started, she lost her status. She received an offer of employment as a German spy which she accepted with the intention of actually working as a double agent for France. Unfortunately, she chose the wrong man to trust in the French government and he sold her out.

These facts are available almost anywhere. Wikipedia, biography.com, Britannica.com are some of the first sites that pop up when you type Mata Hari. Coelho supplements the facts, imbuing the space between bullet points with Mata Hari’s imagined feelings, motivations and intentions.

The Spy was translated from Coelho’s original native tongue, Portuguese.  As with any translation, the reader wonders what was lost between one language to the next.  How close to the author’s vision was the translator while maneuvering over idiomatic barriers.

I bring this up because Coelho’s Mata Hari doesn’t come across as likeable. I don’t know if he didn’t write her sympathetically or if some linguistic artistry got lost.  I get the feeling if she were alive today, her IG captions would be variations of “I’m so ugly, right?” or esoteric Facebook posts asking for prayers but not saying why. Her attention seeking seems insatiable and exhausting even while her bold resourcefulness is admirable.

Despite her poor choices, Mata Hari’s punishment had nothing to do with spying (she never gave the Germans information). Her fatal offense was cashing in on her own sexuality and parlaying her appeal into social currency. No matter how it gets translated, that comes across clearly.

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