Sexuality and One Woman’s Independence in Paulo Coelho’s The Spy

“I don’t know why life made me go through so much in so little time./ To see if I could withstand the hard times./ To see what I was made of./To give me experience./ But there are other methods, other ways to achieve this. It did not need to drown me in the darkness of my own soul make me cross through this forest filled with wolves and other wild animals without a single hand to guide me./ The only thing I know is that this forest, however frightening it may be, has an end, and I intend to reach the other side.”

—Coelho 104

The Spy is my second, and only other novel by Paulo Coelho I’ve read since The Alchemist, Coelho’s most popular novel ever, a few years ago.

The Spy is a historical fiction based on the true story and last letter of an early twentieth century Dutch woman named Margaretha Zelle. After her stint as an unhappy housewife in the East Indies and subsequent divorce back in Europe, Zelle renames and rebirths herself as Mata Hari, or sun in Malay. Inspired by the Eastern dances she watched back in the East, Mata Hari rises to fame by performing a highly stylised form of strip tease that she invents, managing to defy indecency laws of her time by claiming that she was performing an Eastern Temple dance. Her sexuality led to her receiving jewels, lodging, money and other gifts from famous and powerful men she had as her lovers, marking her as the most coveted and elegant woman in Paris. As she was still traveling around Paris during the First World War, Germany tries to recruit her as their spy. However, in Coelho’s novel, Mata Hari claims that she took the German’s money but not their orders.

Mata Hari, the ‘exotic’ dancer

The full story of Mata Hari can be found on multiple Youtube videos and websites such as National Geographic and Time.

As a member of elite inner circles, Mata Hari wrote many letters to multiple correspondents. Coelho’s The Spy is the dramatised, novelic version of her last letter, wrote hastily before her execution to her lawyer. The Spy touches on the highlights of her life interspersed with her musings at the time she writes the letter. The letter is Mata Hari’s attempt to tell her highly controversial story in her own voice. In Coelho’s version, she spends a week writing her last letter. In historical versions such as this one, she writes it in haste right after she is informed her appeal for clemency has been denied, before she is executed.

The orientalism Mata Hari’s career and fans espouse is so overt it is almost grotesque. She adopts and translates Eastern tradition into a highly sexualised form for Westerners’ delight and it is what her career thrives upon. She consumes a another peoples’ culture in order that hers can do likewise to her. The narratives she spins in order to live on her own terms require a lot of dexterity and cunning for a woman in her time. Her story is impressive as it is alarming.

There are multiple accounts that can be found on the Internet arguing about whether Mata Hari was really a German spy. Coelho’s stance is clear: Mata Hari was innocent; her only crime was to be an unapologetically powerful and independent woman in an age where such values were unheard of. Throughout the novel, her startling (for that era) strong will and independence is apparent. During her interactions with men, she plays them intelligently, showing them what they expect but getting what she wants from the game. She only expresses weakness once, and briefly. She shows an iron-clad determination to be controlled neither by state nor man.

Coelho’s narrative isn’t one to look toward if a reader seeks chronological, objective history of Mata Hari. The Spy seeks instead to tell a controversial, breathtaking tale with admiration for the woman it defends and portrays as simply wanting to live the life she desired. It skips on many details, as Mata Hari’s letter supposedly does, such as who her Russian lover was or details about her relationship with her daughter.

Nevertheless, it is a beautifully told story of a woman who dared write her own rules, and the price she had to pay for doing so.

If you like historical fiction, do check out my reviews on Reza Aslan’s Zealot, John Boyne’s The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas and Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathiser.

Happy reading!

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