My rating: 4 of 5 stars
The Spy (2016) by Paulo Coelho tells the first-person narrative of the famous, and infamous, Mata Hari, who achieved overnight fame in Paris as an exotic dancer said to be from Java in the Far East.
The ninth book out of sixteen I’ve read by Paulo Coelho, The Spy can be easily read in a day or two owing to its engaging subject matter (a stripper? a performing artist? a classical dancer to Oriental music? who turns spy? double agent? at the height of the First Great War) and its fluid storytelling which holds the reader to the fictive dream as though it were one of Mata Hari’s dances where she seductively tosses away seven veils to reveal her nude body to a crowd of established men and shocked housewives in the early part of the twentieth century:
“The clothing was formed of veils layered one on top of the other. I removed the first one and no one seemed to pay much notice. But when I removed the second, then the third, people began to exchange glances. By the fifth veil, the audience was totally focused on what I was doing, caring little about the dance but wondering how far I would go. Even the women, whose eyes I met now and then between movements, did not seem shocked or angry; it must have excited them as much as it did the men. I knew that were I in my country, I would be sent to prison immediately, but France was an example of equality and freedom.
“When I got to the sixth veil, I went over to the Shiva statue, simulated an orgasm, and cast myself to the ground while removing the seventh and final veil.
“For a few moments I did not hear a single sound from the audience—from where I was lying, I could not see anyone, and they seemed petrified or horrified. Then came the first ‘Bravo,’ spoken by a female voice, and soon the whole room rose for a standing ovation. I got up with one arm covering my breasts and the other extended to cover my sex” (pgs 59-60).
Mata Hari’s agent, Astruc, claims “the dance” was an ancient Sumerian myth that has Inanna passing through seven gates in the underworld, and to pay her passage she must remove an article of clothing at each gate (pgs 78-79).
Shortly after the first dance, Madame Guimet, who knows Mata Hari is a fraud, says, “Simple is wanting to be famous, but staying that way for more than a month or a year, especially when that fame is linked to one’s body, is what is hard. Simple is wanting a man with all your heart” (p 64).
Fame, however, proves to be more difficult than the artist Mata Hari surmises, and over the next few years imitators start cropping up all over Paris imitating “the dance”, one body part at a time.
Another piece of advice which engages readers—one of Paulo’s usual methods of offering pieces of inspiration along the path of a story—comes from a stranger named Amedeo, apparently a friend to Pablo Picasso, and refers to the “artist’s mission” in life:
“Know what you want and try to go beyond your own expectations. Improve your dancing, practice a lot, and set a very high goal, one that will be difficult to achieve. Because that is an artist’s mission: to go beyond one’s limits. An artist who desires very little and achieves it has failed in life” (p 71).
Paulo Coelho, the true artist yet again, weaves a strikingly elegant picture of the woman known as Mata Hari, also known as H21 to the Germans, and the story of her life told in three main parts in nonlinear form.
Since much of the story is being told from Mata Hari’s memory, the material weaves in and out of the far past into the present and even, at times, into the future.
But what holds this story together is the voice of the writer and his ability to be authentic and sincere to Mata Hari, as if he channeled the dead to dance once more in hopes of righting her wrongs.
“At this moment, I look back at my life,” Mata Hari explains in a letter, “and realize that memory is a river, one that always runs backward.
“Memories are full of caprice, where images of things we’ve experienced are still capable of suffocating us through one small detail or insignificant sound. The smell of baking bread wafts up to my cell and reminds me of the days I walked freely in the cafés. This tears me apart more than my fear of death or the solitude in which I now find myself….
“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” (pgs 13-15).
Mata Hari’s fate is expertly sealed in Paulo Coelho’s The Spy, and to find out more about this legend of a woman who shook Paris to the core, well, you will just have to read the book to find out more.
Keep reading and smiling…