Millennium Post

A life of secrets

On October 15, 1917, the extraordinary life of an exceptional woman comes to an end in Paris –  the city that she had always loved. Though one cannot tell for certain if Mata Hari died the same way the author has described in the book, she was indeed, executed by a firing squad and had refused to be blindfolded during the execution which can be said to a be a display of her strong will and indomitable spirit. A woman who lived life on her own terms, she captivated the world with her soulful dance moves. 

The Spy, written by Paulo Coelho, is based on the life of Margaretha Gertrude Zell, allegedly a Dutch spy who (allegedly) worked for Adolf Hitler and was responsible for the death of millions.The story is about Margaretha Zelle,, born and brought up in Holland (Netherland). It is the journey of the girl, who was raped at the age of 16 by her school principal and got married to an army officer, 22 years elder to her, and moved to Indonesia. Though getting married was her own decision, little did she know that it was a grave mistake and that her life was about be turned upside down. She suffered domestic violence and sexual abuse at the hands of her husband and lost her only child. The suicide of another army officer’s wife encouraged her to leave her husband and end the painful ordeal of marital life. 

In 1903, when Mata Hari, meaning ‘sunrise’ or, more literally, ‘the eye of the day’, in the language of the Dutch East Indies, arrived in Paris she was penniless. But within months she becomes the most celebrated woman in the city. As a dancer, she shocked and delighted audiences; as a courtesan, she bewitched the era’s richest and most powerful men. For other women, she was selfish, shallow and a matter of envy. But as paranoia consumed the country at war, Mata Hari’s lifestyle brought her under suspicion. In 1917, she was arrested in her hotel room and accused of espionage. But was she? Was she the betrayer or betrayed? Many speculations have been made. Few suggest that she indeed was a spy while few portray her as the scapegoat for the French government, who wanted someone to be blamed for the mistake they had made during First World War.

The story is told through fictional letters. One was written by Mata Hari and another was by her solicitor who happened to be her lover (though he never confessed it to her). The Spy is a very short book and sits somewhere between a novel and novella. Though the plot is well handled by the author, it feels incomplete and lacks depth. The author is more focused on Mata Hari’s beauty, boldness and extravagant lifestyle. She definitely was a seductive and attractive woman with a unique fashion sense but the author could have explored other facets of her personality too. Was she really using men for her own pleasure and greed? Or her personality was the mirror image of the way she had been treated by the men. The real story of Mata Hari is more tragic and survival was quite difficult for her. Mata Hari’s character has got more depth than the one portrayed by the author. Few real factsin reality differ from the the ones mentioned in the book. For example, before becoming a dancer she tried her luck at other jobs too and her kid died of syphilis though there is no evidence.

Coelho, in his usual style, offers many inspiring quotes during the length of the story. No wonder he is the best–quoted author of this time. Those readers who do not know anything about Mata Hari will find the story intriguing and will be compelled to know more about her after reading the book. It is a well–written book for those who are being introduced to Mata Hari for the first time. But those who already know about her will be disappointed because it does not offer anything new or interesting.
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