An Espionage Icon
The archetype of exotic dancer working as a double agent is a trope that has become well-known to us over the decades, appearing in countless books, television shows and movies to the point where we expect every stripper to be a CIA assassin. Well, as you might have guessed, as with most character types in fiction this trope is based on the life of a very real person who made headlines across the world in 1917. Her name was Mata Hari and to this very day her story demands our attention and fascination, for she was the real, original femme fatale on which virtually every Hollywood Noir movie was based on.
Now, it’s quite obvious that her story is shrouded in secrets and mysteries the point where we can only speculate about the more intriguing parts of her life. The French Army is poised to declassify the documents concerning her trial in 2017, one hundred years after the affair, but even those papers may not shed as much light as we would like for they only present the French perspective. Anyhow, none of this was nearly enough to stop Paulo Coelho from trying to weave together a comprehensive narrative out of her life, exploring her life history, personality and motivations, aptly-titled The Spy.
Paulo Coelho’s Approach to the Mystery
As you might have expected, a myriad of books and movies have already been released over the years, attempting to recount her story and shed some light on it. Coelho obviously knew that he had to do something a little different to make the book a worthwhile read, which is why the narration is presented in the form of a final letter drafted by Mata Hari before her execution. It’s basically the kind of letter where she pours her heart out, detailing her life from childhood until the fateful moment when she awaits her doom and reflecting on the many decisions she made and the events that shaped her life.
It all happens in chronological order and Coelho succeeds at making you feel as if the book was written by Mata Hari herself, almost as if he channelled her when writing the story. It all flows very smoothly from a technical perspective and as always, the author showcases his tremendous literary proficiency as every word is carefully selected and every sentence refined to perfection.
With all that being said, there are some issues with this novel that simply cannot be overlooked. To begin with, Mata Hari, the woman around who the entire story revolves, isn’t characterized or developed as well as you would expect, especially from Coelho whose characters are always engaging, if not complex. I found it rather difficult to relate to her woes or truly feel sorrow for how the world treated her. Sadly, there are times when it feels like Coelho doesn’t trust you to understand what he means and decides to hammer you over the head with it, like he does with the idea that Hari was a strong, independent woman out of her time who fell victim to the unfair and cruel practices of the world around her. You don’t have to agree or disagree with his point of view to find that practice annoying.
Additionally, I’ll have to admit that if you’re looking for an accurate and factual account of her life, you’d be better served by checking out her page on Wikipedia. We don’t learn anything new or much in general about her, with Coelho preferring to place his focus on the development of her story in a way that fits his personal ideas about her. That isn’t to say he fills the story with lies and deceit to suit his own agenda, but he does take a few liberties which may not please those who expected something one hundred percent true and factual.
Is the Book Ruined?
While in my opinion it isn’t as strong as many of his other books, especially his most popular ones, I don’t believe that the negative aspects outright ruin the entire thing. Rather, in order to appreciate this book and have a good time with it you need to adapt the right mindset and understand that ultimately, you’re dealing with a fictional narrative here instead of official documents, so you should expect the author to take liberties.
The writing may be weaker than what we’re used to, but it doesn’t change the fact that Coelho does manage to put together an interesting and compelling story that can hook you in as you wonder where Hari’s fastidious and daring life will take her next. Also, we are treated to many of his insightful reflections about life and society in general, and true to his fashion, Coelho pours all his heart and soul out into those which does make up for some of the weaker parts of the story.
Who Should Read It?
Ultimately, this kind of book definitely won’t appeal to everyone’s tastes and isn’t a good indicator of what Paulo Coelho usually accomplishes. What it is though, is a book that takes an unusual approach to a secretive subject, delivering an engaging and thought-provoking experience without getting bogged down with factual accuracy. It’s the story of a fiercely independent woman ahead of her time, and if you find her to be a fascinating person then I believe you will draw a lot of enjoyment out of this book.