Most people know Paulo because of his novel “The Alchemist”. His work has influenced thousands of lives around the globe.Therefore, expectations are high when his novel is approached. Does his latest novel live up to them? Let’s see.
“The Spy” can be labelled as a wok of historical fiction. Its events are based on the life of Margaretha Zelle who was born in Leeuwarden, Netherlands-a “town where absolutely nothing happens and every day is the same as the last”. Bored by her hometown and later by her job as a kindergarten teacher, Zelle dreams of leaving her country in search of something exciting. She sees an opportunity in the form of a Army officer looking for a young wife and posted in Indonesia at that time. Not wanting to squander the chance of escape, she meets the officer and within months, the couple travels across the seas to the exotic state. A troubled marriage and a tragic series of events leads Zelle back to her homeland. However, she does not stay there long enough and starts looking for a way out. She is helped or rather she makes good use of her beauty to convince the French Consul to help her travel to the City of Lights (Paris) where she wishes to start new by performing a dance that she markets as Oriental (inspired by the dance she saw in Indonesia) and takes the stage name of Mata Hari.
Her oriental take on the striptease dance becomes famous overnight. Soon, she is seen performing in front of an elite audience made up of bankers, businessmen,ambassadors, officers, officials and their wives. This exposure helps her form friendships and later benefits in the form of money, gifts, and attention by sharing her bed with several “respected gentlemen” of the country. Sadly, the glimmer and shimmer blinds her and we see her terribly confused and constantly in need of attention and fame. She continues to pursue these affairs, never starting a family of her own. Her troubled marriage and the events that followed probably had made her reluctant to explore the insitute of marriage again.
Later during the years of the World War, to ensure that she is not forced to leave her beloved city, Mata Hari decides to play the role of a double agent working for both France and Germany. However, the double edged sword does more damage than good and after a rigged trial, Mata Hari is shot on the charges of espionage.
The author keeps repeating throughout the narrative that Mata Hari was an example of independence. Yes that is true. But her inability to judge events eventually caused her irreparable damage. This may not have had happened if she had friends that she could trust and not just admirers. We can never say what may have happened to her after her years of prime beauty but it may not be wrong to say that she would have struggled a lot. It is good to be independent but interdependence is a reality as well.This is what makes us human. Thus the narrative of independence seems somewhat thrust upon into the story. It’s certainly not the independence that I find inspiring.
I also found the length of the book unable to do justice to the narrative. The book is quite short. As a result, some events that many would find important for the narrative, have been left out entirely. From someone as seasoned as Coelho, these shortcomings hurt more.
An interesting review of the Spy can be read here.