Seeing femme fatale with a humane lens | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, February 13, 2017 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:00 AM, February 13, 2017

Seeing femme fatale with a humane lens


Publisher: Penguin Random House, November 2016 || Price: 22 USD/299 Indian Rupee

Paulo Coelho's latest bestseller 'The Spy' is different from his characteristic genre of spiritual quests and journeys. In a sense, 'The Spy'  is the story of a woman's journey, but more than that, it is the story of legendary Mata Hari retold  as "history told from below", by a woman with a feminist voice. 

Published by Penguin Random House in 2016, this Coelho novel is unlike his other books in many ways. First and foremost, Coelho returns to non-fiction after quite some time. In fact,  after 'The Valkyreis' in 1997, Coelho writes a real story of a real person based on real facts in 'The Spy.' Secondly, in this book Coelho moves away quite noticeably from his sûjet passionnel - spirituality. This is one of those rare Coelho books which are not shrouded in the mystery of mysticism, esoteric quest, or magic of the extraordinary that touches the ordinary life.  But mostly, this book is different because this is perhaps one Coelho book that becomes a counter narrative to mainstream history. 

Postcolonial literature is replete with subaltern and counter-narrative oeuvres. With 'The Spy', Coelho secures his place very strongly amidst the authors of historical narrative.  Coelho has always upheld the voice of the unheard (Eleven Minutes), the tormented (Veronika Decides to Die) or the lost (Adultery). Coelho brought to the forefront those who are somehow victims of the hegemonic power structure that holds our world and society captive.  'The Spy' is the story of Mata Hari , told by Mata Hari,  through the perspectives of a woman who throughout her life  had been a victim of both dominance and hegemony that had contaminated the social norms and justice system of the early twentieth century Europe.

Mata Hari has been made famous as a notorious spy, a toxic woman. History did not care about her version of the trial, for she did not care about the trial much. As her lawyer points out, the Prosecution simply did not have adequate evidence to prove her guilty beyond reasonable doubt. But guilty she was nonetheless, because she was not tried by the War Council as a spy only, but as a spy who was an unconventional woman who threatened both men and women equally in the recently emancipating European society.

The story begins with Mata Hari writing to her lawyer, Mr. Clunet, in her last letter from the prison before her death sentence, the story of her identity. Throughout the book, we find her asking, “Who am I? The dancer who took Europe by storm? The housewife who humiliated herself in the Dutch East Indies? The woman the press called a vulgar artiste despite admiring and idolizing her  a short time before?” Or was she the infamous, notorious spy who got hold of war secrets of both Germany and France during the Great War? The quest for identity is Coelho's forte, and it seems Mata Hari or Margaretha's identity lay in finding out how much innocent she was of her sins. Sins, according to Coelho, she incurred to survive in a world of money, greed and men, but rarely humans: “Innocent? Perhaps that is not the right word. I was never innocent, not since I first set foot in this city… the crimes I did commit, I escaped, the greatest of which was being an emancipated and independent woman in a world ruled by men.” 

 Margaretha Zelle, an ordinary small town girl from Holland who discovered the cost of being beautiful by being raped at sixteen by her Principal, and later physically abused by her husband and ultimately losing her child, sought independence after  the suspicious  murder of their son put the final peck on their crumbling marriage. She learned at a young age that her beauty could both be her destruction and salvation. She chose the latter, entering the aristocratic Parisienne world with her exotic Brahmanic dances from orient, adopting the stage name Mata Hari, meaning the sun.  Few had the knowledge to see through her fraud: her dance was a mockery to the original Javanese dance, her moves were a suigeneris strip dance style, and her audience was also her clients, for “love and power were the same thing”. Coelho gives us an intriguing idea of her extravaganza through the list of her belongings in the prison of saint Lazare which adds up to three trunks containing nearly 170 items of clothing and toiletries. The reader finds Mata Hari reveling in her success so much that she mocked Picasso and  treated  intelligence officers as her fans. She was more interested in showing she had powerful friends in the trial when she should have been defending herself as a scapegoat victim. Her narcissism led her to believe till the last moment that her clients would petition for her clemency, but not a single of them acknowledged to have known her. What led her to making wrong friends?  Coelho tries to give the answer in the voice of her lawyer: “You wanted to create fantastical stories about yourself, either out of insecurity or your almost visible desire to be loved at any cost.”

 Having praised the strengths of the book, one must also be cautious of the weaknesses: Coelho tries to tell a real story, but Mata Hari's voice is unmistakably Coelho's. He cannot refrain from inserting his common musings on paradise, hell, sin and blessings. Coelho acknowledges to have borrowed the opening pages verbatim from the news report for the International News Services in October 1917, but the rest is a blur, leaving the reader to ponder how much of Mata Hari's musings are her own and how much is she just Coelho's character. 

However, at the end, 'The Spy” passes as a book of identity, introducing Mata Hari to those who never knew of her, and guiding the reader to a new perspective with more dimensions to explore. 

The reviewer teaches Human Rights and Law at the University of Dhaka.

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