Book Review

Paulo Coelho’s THE SPY

coelho-paulo-the-spy-coverTitle: The Spy
Author: Paulo Coelho
Format: audiobook, read by Hillary Huber and Paul Boehmer
Start Date: January 27, 2017
End Date: January 31, 2017
Rating: 2.5 stars

By that time, my name will have been long forgotten. But I am not writing to be remembered. I am attempting to understand things myself. Why? How is that a woman who for so many years got everything she wanted can be condemned to death for so little?

I picked this book up because I have enjoyed several of Paulo Coelho’s previous books, notably The Alchemist, Brida, and The Witch of Portobello. Honestly, I also needed an emotional break between reading Jojo Moyes’s Me Before You and After You. This short book seemed like it would be an interesting and quick read (technically, I listened to the audiobook…) about a real-life person in history who I’ve heard of but know nothing about.

I did some research (namely, Wikipedia) after finishing the book to see how true to the facts Coelho kept his narrative. Mata Hari, Margaretha Geertruida “Margreet” Zelle, was born on August 7, 1876 in The Netherlands. She first moved to Paris in 1902 to pursue a dancing career under the stage name of Mata Hari, which literally translates from the Malay as “eye of the day.” She was supposedly employed by both the French and Germans during WWI as a spy, earning the title “double agent.” Even though there was limited proof pinpointing her exact involvement, she was executed on October 15, 1917 in front of a firing squad.

Coelho’s version of the story stuck relatively close to the facts. He outlined her early life and her time in Paris. However, the story itself was told through the eyes of Mata Hari in the form of a letter written to her daughter during her time in prison right before she was executed for her crimes, rather than by an objective third-person narrator. Even after she was killed, Part III was told through the eyes of her lawyer, who admitted that he had loved her.

Because of this, you can’t actually trust the narrative, especially that of Mata Hari. She openly admitted that she was manipulative of the opposite sex, though she (and, by default, Coelho) made the argument that she was not indicted because of her “war crimes,” but instead because she was an intelligent, forward-thinking woman with a mind of her own.

Innocent? Perhaps that is not the right word. I was never innocent, not since I first set foot in this city I love so dearly. I thought I could manipulate those who wanted state secrets. I thought the Germans, French, English, Spanish would never be able to resist me – and yet, in the end, I was the one manipulated. The crimes I did commit, I escaped, the greatest of which was being an emancipated and independent woman in a world ruled by men.

Because of the way the narrative was organized, I felt that the story itself was incomplete. But again, we can blame that on Mata Hari’s letter and voice. As discussed previously, she is manipulative, and so we can infer that she would have no problems manipulating her own story so she would be seen favorably through the eyes of her daughter as well as whoever else would read her letter.

I honestly can say I was not a fan of this book. I don’t know whether reading the actual text would make the story flow better, rather than listening to the audiobook. I got an incomplete feel for who Mata Hari was as a person. Her depiction of herself was vain, selfish, obsessed with fashion, manipulative, greedy, and “loose.” These traits she openly admitted as possessing, but her actual character fell flat. I did not feel that she was strong or independent. Instead, I was left with the impression that she was a petulant child who would essentially do anything to get what she wanted. I didn’t feel invested in her fate. The story didn’t make me care about her or make me wonder if she was innocent or guilty. And that is dangerous territory, to have no empathy for a character, especially for one who is so well-known and often depicted as larger-than-life.

I guess I was just expecting more from this book, especially since it was written by an author I have enjoyed in the past. Instead, the story was lacking detail and character development, leaving me still wondering who, exactly, was Mata Hari.

I will say, though, that I enjoyed the several pictures of Mata Hari that were present throughout the book, as well as the beautiful cover, though I would have enjoyed more pictures to get a better sense of who she was.

I am a woman who was born at the wrong time and nothing can be done to fix this. I don’t know if the future will remember me, but if it does, may it never see me as a victim, but as someone who moved forward with courage, fearlessly paying the price she had to pay.

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