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…
CG FEWSTON, an American novelist based in Hong Kong, is a member of Club Med, AWP, Americans for the Arts, and a professional member and advocate of the PEN American Center, advocating for the freedom of expression around the world.
His novel, A TIME TO LOVE IN TEHRAN, won GOLD for Literary Classics’ 2015 best book in the category under “Special Interest” for “Gender Specific – Female Audience” and has been called a “cerebral, fast-paced thriller” by Kirkus Reviews, where it gained over 10,000 shares.
A TIME TO LOVE IN TEHRAN was also nominated for (& lost) the following 2016 book contests: the PEN/Faulkner Award, the John Gardner Fiction Book Award, the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction, the Young Lions Fiction Award, the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award, the Hammett Prize, and the Pushcart Prize.
CG FEWSTON has travelled the world visiting Mexico, the island of Guam, Japan, South Korea, Hong Kong, Macau, Viet Nam, Cambodia, Singapore, Thailand, Taipei & Beitou in Taiwan, Bali in Indonesia, and in China: Guilin, Shenzhen, Sanya (on Hainan Island) and Beijing. He also enjoys studying and learning French, Vietnamese, Cantonese and Mandarin.
CG FEWSTON earned a B.A. in English & American Literature from HPU in Texas, an M.Ed. in Higher Education Leadership and Administration (honors) from JIU in Colorado, an M.A. in Literature (honors) from Stony Brook University in New York, and an M.F.A. in Creative Writing and Fiction from Southern New Hampshire University, where he had the chance to work with wonderful and talented novelists like Richard Adams Carey (author of In the Evil Day, October 2015; and, The Philosopher Fish, 2006) and Jessica Anthony (author of Chopsticks, 2012; and, The Convalescent, 2010) as well as New York Times Best-Selling novelists Matt Bondurant (author of The Night Swimmer, 2012; and, The Wettest County in the World, 2009, made famous in the movie Lawless, 2012) and Wiley Cash (author of A Land More Kind Than Home, 2013; and, This Dark Road to Mercy, 2014). While at SNHU, CG FEWSTON also participated in writing workshops ran by Mark Sundeen, Ann Garvin, Jo Knowles, Diane Les Becquets, and Benjamin Nugent (all brave, enthusiastic and talented writers).
Over the years, CG FEWSTON has had the pleasure of listening to and meeting best-selling novelists and poets such as Chris Bohjalian, Ravi Shankar, Justin Hill, Xu Xi, Madeleine Thien, Andre Dubus III, and Bob Shacochis.
Among many others, CG FEWSTON’S stories, photographs and essays have appeared in Sediments Literary–Arts Journal, Bohemia, Ginosko Literary Journal, GNU Journal (“Hills Like Giant Elephants”), Polychrome Ink Literary Magazine, Tendril Literary Magazine, Prachya Review (“The One Who Had It All”), Driftwood Press, The Missing Slate Literary Magazine (“Darwin Mother”), Gravel Literary Journal, Foliate Oak Magazine, The Writer’s Drawer, Moonlit Road, Nature Writing, and Travelmag: The Independent Spirit; and for several years he was a contributor to Vietnam’s national premier English newspaper, Tuoi Tre, “The Youth Newspaper.”
You can read more about CG FEWSTON and his writing at
A TIME TO LOVE IN TEHRAN won GOLD for Literary Classics’ 2015 best book in the category under ”Special Interest” for “Gender Specific – Female Audience”…
Finalist in the 2015 Chatelaine Awards for Romantic Fiction…
Finalist in the 2015 Mystery & Mayhem Novel Writing Contest…
Praise for A TIME TO LOVE IN TEHRAN:
FEWSTON “delivers an atmospheric and evocative thriller in which an American government secret agent must navigate fluid allegiances and murky principles in 1970s Tehran… A cerebral, fast-paced thriller.”
“A TIME TO LOVE IN TEHRAN is a thrilling adventure which takes place in pre-revolutionary Tehran. Author CG FEWSTON provides a unique glimpse into this important historical city and its rich culture during a pivotal time in its storied past. This book is so much more than a love story. Skillfully paired with a suspenseful tale of espionage, A TIME TO LOVE IN TEHRAN is a riveting study of humanity. Replete with turns & twists and a powerful finish, FEWSTON has intimately woven a tale which creates vivid pictures of the people and places in this extraordinary novel.”
CG FEWSTON‘s new novel,
A TIME TO LOVE IN TEHRAN, was published on April 2, 2015 —
10 years to the day of the publication
of his first novella, A FATHER’S SON (April 2, 2005)
“Thus one skilled at giving rise to the extraordinary
is as boundless as Heaven and Earth,
as inexhaustible as the Yellow River and the ocean.
Ending and beginning again,
like the sun and moon. Dying and then being born,
like the four seasons.”
found in Sources of Chinese Tradition, p 5
CG FEWSTON and AXTON