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.