Margaretha Zelle, better known to history as Mata Hari, was a crucial cultural figure in early 20th-century Europe. She was a courtesan and a libertine, a famed exotic dancer whose scandalous comfort and openness with her body made her both an icon of sexuality and a target to an old-world order that couldn’t comprehend of a woman with her boldness. In 1917, on evidence that was dubious at best, willfully ignored otherwise, she was tried as a German spy and executed.
Having lived one of the most dramatic lives imaginable in an intensely exciting period, it isn’t surprising that Mata Hari has retained her cultural currency for almost a century after her death, most famously with a Greta Garbo film from 1931. Her life, or at least the popular story and legend surrounding it, combines sexy wartime intrigue with a bold and unapologetic woman—either a cunning navigator of the patriarchy or a devious and manipulative femme fatale, depending on your point of view—the kind of character whose struggle will feel modern so long as strong and independent women are looked upon with hostility.
What is surprising, however, is that the artist to resurrect her for 2016 is Paulo Coelho, whose novel The Spy takes the form of letters from Hari to a lawyer, written as she awaits her end in jail. Coelho, a dime-store philosopher whose work is beloved by those who find motivational posters motivating, hasn’t written a thriller with The Spy, nor is it a feminist manifesto or bit of scholarly history. (At 184 tiny pages it is roughly as illuminating and informative as a skim through Hari’s Wikipedia page.) Instead, it’s merely the latest of Coelho’s surface-level narratives to be stitched over with “insights” that only sound profound if you’re not really paying attention. “Honesty has a way of dissolving lies,” someone says at one point. (Perhaps it sounds more poetic in the original Portuguese; the translation was done by Zoë Perry.)
In fairness, Hari isn’t a bad candidate for the big-picture-at-the-expense-of-details treatment. Her performances, where she claimed ties to Asian and Egyptian cultural traditions, fit neatly into Coelho’s “we are all one soul” worldview. (“I was nothing, not even my body,” she says of being undressed on stage. “I was just movements communing with the universe.”) And by presenting her beliefs on sex, her body, and self-expression as immutable cosmic truths, he suggests a reasonable explanation for her blasé view toward societal constraints, even when violating those norms put her in danger.
More broadly, because Hari has become an emblem of snuffed-out women’s liberation, Coelho has some leeway in removing nuance and complexity from his depiction of her. He examines her as an icon rather than a person; this is essentially what Clint Eastwood did with Chris Kyle in American Sniper. The problem is that he goes too far in this direction. For an historically beguiling enigma, his Hari is painfully devoid of interest. She gets one moment that conveys her legendary spark—throwing someone off her scent by saying of course she’s being followed, “I am beautiful, seductive, and famous”—but is utterly anonymous otherwise. Meanwhile, Coelho is so blunt about his themes that it removes any charge the reader might get from discovering her story or whatever message they might take out of it. Consider this early passage, where by calling attention to his insights, he renders them inherently vapid.
Innocent? Perhaps that is not the right word. I was never innocent, not since I first set foot in this city I love so dearly. I thought I could manipulate those who wanted state secrets. I thought the Germans, French, English, Spanish would never be able to resist me—and yet, in the end, I was the one manipulated. The crimes I did commit, I escaped, the greatest of which was being an emancipated and independent woman in a world ruled by men.
This issue might have been smoothed over had Coelho written from a different character’s perspective throughout, or from a third-person point of view, but that wouldn’t erase his maddening spoon-feeding. Instead of providing context for how Hari was viewed in her era, he instead offers cutesy cameos. Hari meets a man “called Freud—I can’t remember his first name.” She attends a performance of The Rite Of Spring “by an unknown Russian composer whose name I still cannot remember.” She gets “a copy of this book once, called the Koran” about “some prophet whose name I also can’t recall.” (Those examples are spread throughout the book, incidentally, raising the question of whether amnesia would be a help or hinderance with espionage.)
Ultimately the writing is just lazy, the book’s entire theme an idea that Coelho didn’t bother to flesh out with research or, evidently, passion. His broad strokes may suit a fable like The Alchemist, but for this—a real life, one more complex and consequential than most—it is utterly, almost insultingly, inadequate. “I don’t know why life made me go through so much in so little time,” Hari complains at one point. Neither does Coelho.