The Spy—Paulo Coelho

[I read this short 2016 novel in two halves. I wrote about the first half before reading on.]

18 October 2019
Part 1 and some of Part 2—the first half
This is an imagined memoir written by a real person. She is ‘the spy,’ although she insists that she never did any of the things she was found guilty of in court. And, reader, she is Mata Hari. She writes with the kind of lolloping faux-innocence of somebody who is too old to be trying to get away with this sort of thing, and I find the tone relentlessly tiresome. The memoir is written in the form of a letter to her (real-life) lawyer as she waits for either the execution or the pardon that never comes, and the tone is set almost from the start: ‘you will never publicly admit that you allowed an innocent woman to die. / Innocent? Perhaps that is not the right word. I was never innocent, not since I first set foot in this city….’ It’s that mix of defiance and sometimes rueful regret—but always with the kind of self-assurance you sometimes get from politicians who keep telling us they were never guilty of any wrong-doing. Not convincing and, usually, not very interesting…

…which is the case here. Mata Hari, real name Margaretha Zelle, is simply doing what she felt she had to do. She’s telling her story, step by yawn-inducing step. Paulo Coelho tries to add interest with a prologue. ‘The woman’ is woken in her cell, allowed to dress, and is taken to where she is shot by a firing squad. But from then on, this same woman—we aren’t told until page 48 that she is Mata Hari when, in her narrative, she uses the name for the first time—starts at the beginning and plods on. Boring childhood, the slow dawning upon her that she is so beautiful that all her peers try (and fail) to imitate her, horrific rape by the principal of the school where she was supposed to learn how to be a nice middle-class lady, abusive marriage to an officer posted in Indonesia, two children, life-changing moments when a) she witnesses some Javanese dancers and b) a cheated-on wife kills herself ‘for love’ out of desperation, practically in her arms, her insistence that they return to Europe, her escape to Paris, her pretence of having been born in Indonesia where she absorbed its dance traditions almost from birth, her new name, some fortuitous meetings leading to a chance to perform, her performance, before a sophisticated audience, of a kind of striptease she makes up as she goes along, the bookings, the agents, the money, the clothes, the lovers….

At the point I’ve reached, she’s further beyond the age of 30 than she admits, and is beginning to talk gloomily to her agent about how long she has left. He, and others, advise her to stop spending money and start investing some of it. She seems to find this concept difficult to take on, but another lucky encounter brings her a new opportunity to make far more money than she currently does. And she wonders, in a kind of languidly fatalistic way, if her agent has always been creaming off more of her earnings than he admits. Maybe she hadn’t been very worldly to have accepted at face-value his ‘Leave all the financial side to me’ spiel…. The new encounter—he’s sought her out as she lolls at a café table pretending not to be loving the recognition she’s getting from everybody—is with a German. He offers her a fortune to perform in Berlin and, at the half-way point, it appears she’s about to take him up on it.

Coelho, a 21st Century male author writing in the voice of this woman from the late 19th, seems to be having a hard time finding his way inside her mindset. It occurred to me that, just maybe, he hopes the reader will see through the bland self-assurance of the voice, in order to see that she is a self-justifying hedonist…. But I can find nothing in the book to make that seem likely. She takes herself very seriously, makes solemn pronouncements on love, sex and the transitory nature of life, and… what? Sometimes, she assures us, she was born before her time, could never be comfortable with the constraints of life as lived by most of the bourgeoisie. But so? She’s ‘an emancipated and independent woman in a world ruled by men … fearlessly paying the price she had to pay.’

Well, maybe. Obviously, as 21st Century readers, we know exactly what she’s talking about. But I get no sense of any struggle. She was hating her life, escaped to Paris, and found something more interesting. Her century-old battle needs to be presented in a far more engaging way, otherwise she is never going to gain our sympathy. Coelho simply isn’t writing it well enough.

19 October
The rest of Part 2, and Part 3—to the end
Margaretha appears, in the end, to have been a rather silly woman with an unrealistic view of her own abilities and importance. If Paulo Coelho wanted to present her as anything different, a defiant warrior—she calls herself a warrior, at least once—in the fight against the Patriarchy, he would need to find a way to make her voice more sympathetic. I wrote the same thing when I had only read half the novel, but the rest of her letter/memoir carries on as before. Once in Berlin, she flounces about expensively, then thinks she can outwit the German intelligence services with no effort at all. In fact, she is followed all the way to the French Consulate as soon as she has become the German spy ‘H21’. She mocks the code name—it sounds like the number of a train seat—and offers to be a double-agent for the French. Astonishingly, they agree… and, much later, we are told that part of the reason for getting rid of her is for the French to cover up their own incompetence.

It turns out, according to the lawyer she’s writing to in this memoir, that she really was innocent. She never passed anything to the Germans—she throws away the bottle of invisible ink as soon as she’s out of the building—but, according to him, in a time of war even the most tenuous of accusations can be made to seem sinister. The French prosecutor needed a high-profile victory for the sake of public morale—and, of course, nobody who ever protected her and gave her money is going to admit to it now. Every single one of her claims to have known men in high places is denied. Meanwhile the lawyer, like her, insists that her only real crime was no crime at all. As he writes a letter to her that she will never read—Coelho is going to turn this into an epistolary novel if it kills him—he tells her she was ‘someone who dared to challenge certain customs. And for that you could not be forgiven.’ Poor old Margaretha made the same point 160 pages earlier, right at the start of her memoir. So thanks, Paulo, but we got it the first time.

Is there more I could say? Not really… beyond the fact that the lawyer seems to be as prone to musing on the nature of life and love as she is. At one point, he breaks off from his account of the dubious evidence that was enough to convict her so he can tell, over a page and more, the story of Psyche and Eros. ‘Each time I recall this myth, I wonder: are we never to be able to see the true face of love?’ He ruminates a bit more. The face of love ‘should always be covered in mystery. Every moment should be lived with feeling and emotion because if we try to decipher it and understand it, it disappears.’ I had hoped, when Part 3 turns out to be in the voice of a different character, that we’d heard the last of Margaretha’s portentous style. But no, if you’re a character in a Paulo Coelho novel, this is how you talk.

Remind me not to read any others.