Paulo Coelho, author and international bestseller of books like The Alchemist and Adultery pens a gripping and part fictional tale on one of history’s most enigmatic woman, Mata Hari. The novel explores the cult and legend of Mata Hari, whose only crime was that she chose to be an independent woman and exposed the world to feminism for the first time in the true sense of the word. She lived a life on her own terms and conditions and for this she faced the firing squad. In her own words, “I am born a woman who was born at a wrong time and nothing can be done to fix this.”
This is a story of an independent woman who with her grit, courage and determination carved out a niche for herself in a male oriented world. The real Mata Hari is more interesting and brave than Margaretha Zelle who is naive and innocent. At a young age, after the death of her mother, her father sends her to a boarding school where she is raped by the school headmaster. To escape the continuous sexual abuse she marries a Dutch soldier after seeing an ad in the newspaper. She moves to Indonesia, where her husband turns out to be abusive and a womaniser. Mata Hari discovers that she went from the frying pan to the fire.
She bears two children – a girl and a boy. The boy dies young and it was alleged that the nanny had poisoned him. After the divorce, she left her daughter with her ex-husband as he could support her. From desperation she forged a career in Paris as a dancer and as a woman who slept with men for money and favour. Coelho portrays her as a libertine and free spirit but it seems she used men for fame, wealth and power, which came from inner rage at how they used her.
The author has revealed these emotions in an effective way, but he falters at times. For instance, he ignores the fact that she tried many respectable careers for women, trying to support herself and her daughter before becoming Mata Hari. She did not forget or leave her daughter. She wrote, confessing ‘Don’t think that I am bad at heart, I have done it only out of poverty.”
The book makes for an interesting read as the author has combined the information from her letters as well as declassified confidential documents and a well researched timeline, along with creative liberties to write a first person account of Mata Hari’s life starting from age 16. The credit goes to the author for not taking up stuff to unnecessarily fill up the pages. Therefore, the historical facts are in sync with the story line. It proves that the author has done extensive research on the subject.
The beauty of the book is that the readers are transported to that world before Great War in Paris, where everything shimmered golden and people were defined according to their riches and their taste in art, music, theatre and dance. In a nutshell, Mata Hari’s life was painful and sad. Her beauty and grace are well depicted by Coelho but at times he fails to explore the depths of the great persona that she was. Apart from where he lacks, he makes up for putting up an accurate autobiographical story that is highly compelling and enlightens the readers about this woman who was a graceful dancer and spy of the 20th Century.
If you enjoy reading stories of strong, independent women who carve out a place for themselves in history and for their gender, then this book is a must read and a good start. So do consider checking out The Spy.