The Spy: A Novel by Paulo Coelho

I have enjoyed every Coelho book I have read so I was excited when my friend let me have her copy of “The Spy”. In short, it is a fictionalized historical novel about the life of Mata Hari told from her point of view in letters to her attorney.

The research into her life is sound so it’s a brief but fascinating glimpse into a woman who was misunderstood. Mata Hari started life in Holland as a simple country girl looking for a way out.
She married a naval officer and headed off to Java in Indonesia in what was then called the Dutch East Indies. Although she was an officer’s wife and mother, she was also bored and unhappy. She learned a variety of dances and trotted off to Europe to reinvent herself.

Renaming herself Mata Hari, she became a Parisian cabaret dance sensation and sex symbol. She used her feminine wiles to book gigs and amass finery in the form of clothing and jewels. She paraded around on the arms of wealthy and important men.

With the advent of war and the expulsion of foreigners, she ended up back in Amsterdam with her star on the wane; she approached the French and the German embassy officials attempting to secure a visa in order to get back to Paris, either directly or via the Berlin cabaret scene.

According to her own version of events, she was misunderstood and scapegoated by both sides. Portrayed as a spy, a double agent or a traitor depending on which official was telling the story, she was jailed, tried, found guilty and executed.

While by no means the definitive story of Mata Hari, it is an easy, well written introduction to a fascinating woman. I love the style of Coelho’s writing – it reminds me at times of a modern day Hemingway. It is extremely difficult to write short, crisp sentences that convey a great deal of information without a lot of adjective or adverb filler. Coelho does this well and it is all the more impressive because the original language he writes in is Portuguese.

A nice little fictional novel about Mata Hari from a very good writer. No more, no less.

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