Monday Book Review: “The Spy” by Paulo Coehlo.

Even if you don’t know the history of Mata Hari, Paulo Coelho’s The Spy (translated from the Portuguese by Zoë Perry) starts with a prologue detailing her execution after having been convicted for espionage, supposedly resulting in the deaths of 50, 000 soldiers during World War I. There are no spoilers to worry about here as the book starts with the end of the story. What then follows is the major body of the novel, which is written as a letter by Mata Hari to her defending lawyer, Édouard Clunet, which is in turn followed by a shorter letter from Clunet to her. It’s clear that both letters were written roughly at the same time without being a response to each other.

While the book doesn’t necessarily give a detailed biography of Mata Hari’s life—Coehlo admits in his afterward that he embellished and altered events to fit the narrative—it serves more as a character study of what type of person Coehlo thought Mata Hari to be. Mata Hari herself (that is, the fictional version of her) states that she isn’t writing the letter in order to justify her actions or to explain her innocence but rather to help her understand what type of person she is. Clunet’s letter, on the other hand, tries to rationalize that he did the best he could in defending her, while at the same time proclaiming his love for her. She even admits in her letter that the two had an affair during her trial.

The book asserts that Mata Hari’s only crime was that she was a sexually charged woman. Indeed, much was made of her sexuality in court as evidence of her sinful character (one of the books cited by Coehlo, Femme Fetale: Loves, Lies and the Unknown Life of Mata Hari by Pat Shipman makes a similar claim). The fictional Mata Hari writes in her letter that she was manipulated by the men in her life while she was trying to manipulate them through sex. She writes:

The crimes I did commit, I escaped, the greatest of which was being an emancipated and independent woman in a world ruled by men.

The novel, instead of reading like a detailed biography, offers highlights of her life. One of the earliest of these involved a dance that she and her husband, an officer in the Dutch military, had went to while he was stationed in Indonesia. The wife of a fellow officer was not only jealous of the attention he was paying Mata Hair, but was also generally unhappy with their marriage and life there. In the middle of the hall the wife shot herself and then died in Mata Hari’s arms. Mata Hari writes in her letter that she was “baptized” by the woman’s blood. She herself was also unhappy with her life (and marriage to an abusive husband) and if this event hadn’t happened, she probably would do the same. It was at this point that she began to realize herself. Throughout the narrative she would return to the “baptism” any time that a significant event occurred that would further the transition from Margaretha Zelle to Mata Hari.

The letter from Clunet to Mata Hari feels dry in comparison to her letter and goes on for too long, and only looks like it’s there to advance Coehlo’s assertion that Mata Hari was wrongly prosecuted in a kangaroo court. It doesn’t advance the humanization of Mata Hari that The Spy attempts, although it doesn’t lessen the impact of the first letter, either. Overall, the book is short so the whole thing is a quick read anyway. It does give a good example of how an independent woman struggles to keep her identity in a world full of sexist men. Even her defender Clunet writes in a condescending tone and clearly mistakes their sexual affair as a burning romance. The Spy may not provide a detailed case for the real life Mata Hari’s innocence, but it does provide a solid characterization of a young woman finding her way in a world set on controlling her and punishing her when it can’t.


Book reviews: “Something Will Happen, You’ll See” by Christos Ikonomou and “In the Café of Lost Youth” by Patrick Modiano.

In the story “Mao” from the collection Something Will Happen, You’ll See by Christos Ikonomou (translated from the Greek by Karen Emmerich), a character known simply as “the admiral” sums up the entire story in one of the more powerful moments from the book:

We talk and talk and the more we talk the better I understand that what binds us together are the things we’re afraid of and the things we hate. How did we end up like this? Where did all the hatred and fear come from, can you tell me? And the more time passes the worse things get.

The short stories in this collection focus on the inhabitants of a port city southwest of Athens, offering a portrait of the struggle of life during the financial crisis in Greece. People are laid off, people screw each other, some even lose their lives in rough neighborhoods. In one story, a woman saves money in a piggy bank only for her boyfriend to leave her, stealing it. In another, five men wait by a barrel fire all night to be the first in line to see the doctors at the social security offices in Nikaia. In another story a man searches for money to get food to feed his son on Easter, only to end up on a church floor, injured by a fall after helping decorate a statue of Jesus.

The conversational tone of the language with its minimal use of punctuation accentuates the bleakness of existence for many of the characters. While the stories aren’t strictly connected via their narrative, the thematic and tonal thread running through them suggests that perhaps these characters all inhabit the same world; however, in their misery they can only see the world around them, closing in more tightly as things get worse.

There’s a sliver of hope throughout the book as well. Ikonomou doesn’t offer and overt solution to the crisis, but instead shows that through people’s solidarity and resilience they can still get by. They may not be rich or very happy. But sometimes it’s enough to just be okay.

Each of the four chapters is told from a different character’s point of view in In the Café of Lost Youth by Patrick Modiano (translated from the French by Chris Clarke). While in some hands this could feel like a gimmick, tying all of the threads together and culminating in an “aha” moment akin to the end of a murder mystery, Modiano instead only briefly mentions the shared interactions between all of the characters. Still, as one of the four main characters, a detective named Caisley observes

In this life that sometimes seems to be a vast, ill-defined landscape without signposts, amid all of the vanishing lines and the lost horizons, we hope to find reference points, to draw up some sort of land registry so as to shake the impression that we are navigating by chance. So we forge ties, we try to find stability in chance encounters.

The story revolves around a young woman named Jacqueline Choreau née Delanque, also known by regulars of the café Condé as “Louki.” The overall narrative backtracks each time with each of the four perspectives but the overall story arc feels smooth. Through the first we find that the regulars of Condé are all fascinated with each other. In the second we find that one non-regular that was fascinated by her is in fact a private detective, hired by her husband to find her after she left him abruptly. The third perspective is from Jacqueline herself, providing much of the backstory before the main thread starts. Finally we hear from the lover she left her husband for, all the way to the tragic end.

The book takes place in Paris in the 1950s although aside from a few place names doesn’t really feel much like a period piece. It could be the book was written so concisely that it doesn’t need to feel nostalgic, or as a non-Parisian I haven’t picked up on all of the subtleties. Either way, the book could take place any time. What is important is how we study the way in which we all have an impact on each other, even in the most minor way. The first chapter alone is written by an unnamed character that we never see again, other than briefly once, in passing. Yet it provides a glimpse at how this one woman has had a big impact on others. The few flash-forwards scenes in the book then show that even though Paris has moved on, this one woman and the café she sometimes took refuge in remains in the memories of those affected by them.

Friday News Roundup. #turkey #nice #pokemongo

In which I offer my take on some of the week’s news. I can’t promise I’ll hit everything.

  • I’m writing this as news is pouring in at the coup attempt in Turkey. It’s really too early to offer any comment, but I can’t say that I’m terribly surprised. From what little I know of Turkey it doesn’t seem like the government has a high level of support from multiple sides. Turkey is often hailed for it’s mix of both old and new and of both Eastern and Western cultures. Just recently I read a book that challenges the traditional point of view that Western is Modern, and that several different modernities are possible—using Turkey as a case study. While that can lead to a lot of cultural diversity I have to wonder how strong a system has to be to maintain stability in such an area. It’s only a general impression but like I said, it’s too early to really make any real remarks about what’s happening now.
  • The biggest story of the week so far appears to be the attack in Nice. Obviously I condemn such violence and terror and I’m morally disgusted at all of the lives that were taken. But given all of that, I have to wonder if there’s any footage of the attack. I don’t ask for my own entertainment. There’s action movies for that. But given the novelty of the attack, it would be interesting to study what happens to crowds of humans when a truck plows through them in such a way.
    But that thought aside, how many more attacks is France going to take? How many attacks is Europe going to take? I wish I had the answers to what could be done. As a pacifist I have  hard time coming up with peaceful solutions. Even if there is violent retaliation against terrorists, is there an endpoint to all of this? Or are we just in a perpetual state of violence and terror as human beings?
  • Up until the attack in Nice, the biggest news story this week seemed to revolve around the game Pokémon Go. It’s a neat premise but one that I’m not going to involve myself with. My primary reason, as always, is because everybody else is doing it. However, I don’t need yet another company tracking my movements so they can learn what kind of consumer I am. That information is out there. They don’t need to research me directly. I could go on about them selling that information to the government but it’s really too late to worry about something that now.
  • Speaking of video games, Nintendo announced the release the Nintendo Entertainment System: NES Classic Edition. Here’s yet another thing made out of plastic to tempt you to waste your hard-earned paycheck. I want one.
  • A big American news story this week, one which happened locally to me, is that Bernie Sanders officially gave his support to Hillary Clinton. I can’t say that I didn’t see this coming months ago. As I have said, I like his rhetoric better but I don’t trust him any more than the others. Which ever of the two leading Democratic nominees wins, I’m voting for in November. None of this has anything to do with what I think of Hillary Clinton. In this case, voting for the lesser of two evils really is voting based on my conscience.

A few brief thoughts about what’s been happening in France this week.

I suppose the big pink elephant in the living room as far as topics for this blog go would be the shit that’s been going on in Paris this past week. I’ve been reluctant to comment on it. I know I pledged a while back that I wouldn’t stop writing about something just because everybody else has. But honestly, what could I say about this subject that I haven’t already said? I already covered religion on a general level, so take any vitriol I have towards zealots and multiply it tenfold for extremists. I’m a pacifist so I already covered the violence angle as well. I do wonder about what level of security Charlie Hebdo already had considering they knew how extremists might act—but this is, of course, saying so after the fact, and I don’t want to be disrespectful towards the victims and their families.

Another detriment towards writing about the subject is just how fast-paced the constantly updating story is progressing. As I write this French authorities believe that they have killed the terrorists directly responsible for the shooting. Still, they likely acted on behalf of a larger organization that may have roots in the Middle East, which we now see can clearly conduct acts of violence in Europe—demonstrating how far-reaching this problem can spread. Even if the perpetrators aren’t tied to terrorists groups in the Middle East, we can see how the ideas are spreading. In this case I am not blaming the activities on the religion itself. Even if I wanted to, this would definitely be the case of “too soon.”

So, as insensitive as this question may be: could this be considered Europe’s 9/11? On the surface there’s little to compare the two. Aside from the large difference in scale, the attack on Charlie Hebdo was a case of them clearly targeting a small group in retaliation. No, the reason I raise the question is that I wonder how people in that part of the world are going to respond to this. And yes, I realize that by using “Europe” I’m generalizing a large diversity of people. See what kind of logical minefield I can get myself into writing about this topic?

Speaking in more general terms, I condemn any kind of violent activity, especially when based on bad ideology. On top of that, I take issue with the fact that people across the world that supposedly have freedom of speech now have to fear not only the possibility of censorship for authority but also violent reaction from the wrong kind of people. With this global village of communication, are we entering the age where walking in the wrong neighborhood and giving the wrong person the wrong look is equivalent to publishing a cartoon that can reach the wrong people halfway around the world?

I sure hope not. I know that my blog isn’t halfway to what I would consider being widely read. But if all it takes is one wrong person to stumble upon it, then I can get worried. I know I haven’t really been hitting controversial topics with this blog in the past few months but at the same time I don’t want to feel like I should be afraid to do so, if it turns out that I do have something to say.