Yannick Murphy: Signed, Mata Hari

Yannick Murphy: Signed, Mata Hari

Mata Hari isn't the original femme fatale, but she's certainly one of the most famous. An exotic dancer accused of passing military information to the Germans during World War I, and subsequently executed, her story needed little embellishment to pass onto the silver screen, where portrayals by Greta Garbo and Jeanne Moreau asserted her guilt and her glamour. Both elements are present in Yannick Murphy's fourth book, Signed, Mata Hari, but the novel complicates the image of the woman, in part by betraying its own narrative leanings.

While Mata waits in a dank French prison for her final appeal, she follows her life along two different threads: In one, Mata, born Margaretha, is a lonely, rebellious Dutch girl who escapes her father by becoming a mail-order bride to a naval officer named MacLeod. When MacLeod is posted to Java, his young bride evokes his ire by wearing sarongs, speaking Malay, taking her new name, and neglecting their children in favor of exploring the countryside. At the same time, Mata takes ironic stock of the accusations against her, and of her career as a famous dancer touring Europe, with a lover in every city. Through dreamlike interludes often interrupted by the lawyer prosecuting her case, she relives her supposed treachery, which began when her Javanese-inspired act brought her into contact with ranking officials on both sides of World War I, through ironic asides that begin, "If you want to be a spy…"

Murphy shows an uncanny technical mastery in her manipulation of these stories as she switches among first-, second-, and third-person perspectives to reconstruct a woman who's just as conflicting a figure today as she was during the war. The picture she composes, unsurprisingly, contradicts itself at several points, but not from any sense of essential vagueness; like Walt Whitman, Mata Hari contains multitudes. Not all of them are equally attractive, of course, and young Margaretha's absorption into Java particularly feels like well-trod ground, but Murphy never entirely unseats the mystery that attracted people to the Mata Hari myth in the first place. Instead, Signed, Mata Hari acts as a gloss on her popular image, paired with a personal and often tragic interior history.

Filed Under: Books

More Book Review