HER ONLY CRIME WAS TO BE AN INDEPENDENT WOMAN
When Mata Hari arrived in Paris she was penniless. Within months she was the most celebrated woman in the city.
As a dancer, she shocked and delighted audiences; as a courtesan, she bewitched the era’s richest and most powerful men.
But as paranoia consumed a country at war, Mata Hari’s lifestyle brought her under suspicion. In 1917, she was arrested in her hotel room on the Champs Elysees, and accused of espionage.
Told in Mata Hari’s voice through her final letter, The Spy is the unforgettable story of a woman who dared to defy convention and who paid the ultimate price.
About the Author
Hometown:Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Date of Birth:August 24, 1947
Place of Birth:Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Education:Left law school in second year
Read an Excerpt
Dear Mr. Clunet,
I do not know what will happen at the end of this week. I have always been an optimistic woman, but time has left me bitter, alone, and sad.
If things turn out as I hope, you will never receive this letter. I’ll have been pardoned. After all, I spent my life cultivating influential friends. I will hold on to the letter so that, one day, my only daughter might read it to find out who her mother was.
But if I am wrong, I have little hope that these pages, which have consumed my last week of life on Earth, will be kept. I have always been a realistic woman and I know that, once a case is settled, a lawyer will move on to the next one without a backward glance.
I can imagine what will happen after. You will be a very busy man, having gained notoriety defending a war criminal. You will have many people knocking at your door, begging for your services, for, even defeated, you attracted huge publicity. You will meet journalists interested to hear your version of events, you will dine in the city’s most expensive restaurants, and you will be looked upon with respect and envy by your peers. You will know there was never any concrete evidence against me—only documents that had been tampered with—but 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 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. I was convicted of espionage even though the only thing concrete I traded was the gossip from high-society salons.
Yes, I turned this gossip into “secrets,” because I wanted money and power. But all those who accuse me now know I never revealed anything new.
It’s a shame no one will know this. These envelopes will inevitably find their way to a dusty file cabinet, full of documents from other proceedings. Perhaps they will leave when your successor, or your successor’s successor, decides to make room and throw out old cases.
By that time, my name will have been long forgotten. But I am not writing to be remembered. I am attempting to understand things myself. Why? How is it that a woman who for so many years got everything she wanted can be condemned to death for so little?
At this moment, I look back at my life and realize that memory is a river, one that always runs backward.
Memories are full of caprice, where images of things we’ve experienced are still capable of suffocating us through one small detail or insignificant sound. The smell of baking bread wafts up to my cell and reminds me of the days I walked freely in the cafés. This tears me apart more than my fear of death or the solitude in which I now find myself.
Memories bring with them a devil called melancholy—oh, cruel demon that I cannot escape. Hearing a prisoner singing, receiving a small handful of letters from admirers who were never among those who brought me roses and jasmine flowers, picturing a scene from some city I didn’t appreciate at the time. Now it’s all I have left of this or that country I visited.
The memories always win, and with them comes a demon that is even more terrifying than melancholy: remorse. It’s my only companion in this cell, except when the sisters decide to come and chat. They do not speak about God, or condemn me for what society calls my “sins of the flesh.” Generally, they say one or two words, and the memories spout from my mouth, as if I wanted to go back in time, plunging into this river that runs backward.
One of them asked me:
“If God gave you a second chance, would you do anything differently?”
I said yes, but really, I do not know. All I know is that my current heart is a ghost town, one populated by passions, enthusiasm, loneliness, shame, pride, betrayal, and sadness. I cannot disentangle myself from any of it, even when I feel sorry for myself and weep in silence.
I am a woman who was born at the wrong time and nothing can be done to fix this. I don’t know if the future will remember me, but if it does, may it never see me as a victim, but as someone who moved forward with courage, fearlessly paying the price she had to pay.
Reading Group Guide
The questions, discussion topics, and reading list that follow are intended to enhance your reading group’s conversation about The Spy, celebrated novelist Paulo Coelho’s masterful retelling of the life of Mata Hari, one of the most infamous spies of the twentieth century.
1. The narrative structure of The Spy shifts among the perspectives of Mata Hari, her attorney, and factual source documents. What does this assert about subjectivity in recounting historical events? How is the true version of the events leading up to Mata Hari’s execution destabilized throughout the reading experience of The Spy? What does the sober presentation of the conclusion of the novel suggest about justice?
2. Discuss the significance of the epigraph that opens The Spy. How does it act as a presage of tone for the novel? How does Coelho’s choice to begin the book with an account of Mata Hari’s death establish mood and setting?
3. Discuss Mata Hari’s childhood. How would you describe her relationship with her parents? Her hometown? How does her mother’s advice to “follow your destiny, whatever it may be, with joy” shape her outlook and worldview?
4. Early in the narrative, Mata Hari reflects on her sexual assault at the hands of her school principal. How does this incident influence her attitude toward sex? Toward men in general? How—and when—does she reclaim her sexuality?
5. On page 20, Mata Hari plainly states, “All the men I’ve known have given me joy, jewelry, or a place in society, and I’ve never regretted knowing them . . .” How does this unabashed attitude toward sex, money, and fame grate against expected feminine behavior? How do men in the novel react to this brazen reach for power, success, and material wealth? How does she use men as necessary pawns for fulfilling her dreams?
6. Discuss the evolution of Mata Hari’s relationship with her husband. When they first meet, how does she view marriage as an institution? How does she contend with her husband’s abuse? How is their marriage affected by the death of their son?
7. The scene in which Andreas’s wife commits suicide is formative for Mata Hari’s identity. How does she describe this incident? How did this episode propel her to take agency over her own life?
8. Describe Mata Hari’s choice to rename herself. What is the significance of her renaming? How does this assertion of a new identity allow her to explore the unruliest aspects of her personality?
9. Mata Hari was of Dutch descent, but she expresses throughout The Spy that her true home is Paris. Why does she feel a spiritual connection to that city? How do Parisians’ attitudes toward her change as she ages? As political tensions mount?
10. How does Mata Hari describe dance? Discuss her first performance of the “traditional” dance of Java. How is cultural appropriation discussed throughout the novel?
11. On page 87, Mata Hari asserts, “For me, love and power were the same thing.” When is this conflation demonstrated most vividly during the novel? How do masculine figures in her life contend with her grasp for power? When does Mata Hari’s power become most problematic? With whom does she share real affection?
12. How are personal secrets and political treachery interwoven throughout the narrative? Discuss the paranoia that emerges among male authority figures in the novel as political tensions flare. How does Mata Hari’s presence agitate them? How does she treat her responsibilities as H21?
13. How would you describe the working relationship between Mata Hari and her manager, Astruc? Discuss the scene on the beach in which Mata Hari reveals the true facts of her background to him. How does this alter their relationship? Discuss her decision to take the gig in Germany, despite the country’s express anti-Semitism. How did you interpret her decision? Was it out of impetuousness or for reasons of financial security?
14. The tension between private and public selves is explored throughout The Spy. How is Mata Hari’s view of herself enhanced, sated, or complicated by her public stature? How does her public presentation differ from the reality of her existence toward the end of her life? Discuss how she “constructs” her persona from a young age.
15. While incarcerated, Mata Hari writes, “Though at the moment I am a prisoner, my spirit remains free.” (103) How does Mata Hari define freedom? Does the tone of her personal account indicate any sense of guilt or regret at her actions?
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
The Spy by Paulo Coelho 2017 This book is based on real events that occcurred in Paris 1917 when Mata Hari was executed. I enjoyed the historical perspective of this book from the views of Margaretha Zelle, known as Mata Hari. It is written from her perspective and that of her attorney through "letters" in which they describe the events of her life and eventual conviction. She hopes to explain the ambiguities and misconceptions that followed her throughout her life. She honestly admits her flaws and bad decisions which ultimately led to the suspicions of her being accused a spy. She is a strong independent woman who is always very much in charge of her life. She used her sensual beauty and manipulative seduction to forge her life from "nothing" to a woman with power, fame and money. "And that was me, Mata Hari, for whom every moment of light and every moment of darkness meant the same thing." Her attorney notes, "You were beautiful, known worldwide, always envied—though never respected—in the concert halls where you appeared. Liars, what little I know of them, are people who seek popularity and recognition. Even when faced with truth, they always find a way to escape, coldly repeating what had just been said or blaming the accuser of speaking untruths." "My dear Mata Hari, what spy in their right mind would mention such barbarities with the enemy? But your desire to call people’s attention, at a time when your fame was in decline, only made matters worse." This story has no spoilers since it's historical fiction with unclear circumstances even to this day as further records are due to be unsealed 2017 after 100 years.
Very disappointed in this novel. It is basically letters written by Mata Hari and her lawyer. So much more could have been included about this very intriguing woman and the difficult time period she lived in.
This novel, written from multiple first-person perspectives, provides unique insights into the execution of Mata Hari for espionage as a double agent during World War I. Coelho portrays Mata Hari as a misunderstood figure--a lone woman simply trying to make her way any way she could in a man's world made more complicated by war, convicted on flimsy, circumstantial evidence at best or outright sacrificed on the altar of morale, propaganda and wartime expediency, hysteria and fervor at worst. While the narrative meanders at times and is a bit difficult to follow, the historical facts of the case are so well known that the thread of the story can be picked up fairly easily. Further, a somewhat disordered retelling of events lends authenticity to the story since our narrators are reflecting on their actions the night before Mata Hari's execution when their emotional states would be extremely fragile. The Spy is a very quick and interesting read about one of history's most reviled, but fascinating figures.
Well written and a fast read. Great for a short escape, though the subject matter is hardly of the 'happy ending' sort. Though I can't say I had a burning interest in Mati Hari prior to picking up this book, reading it motivated me to what know know more of the facts; of her as an individual, and of the specific history of the time and place. AFTER you've read the book, go to the author's website and download the Mati Hari file. Not all of it is in English, but it is fascinating to see the historical documents. The novel asks you to think about a number of things, including gender roles, and what happens to those who do not conform to what a given society thinks is proper and appropriate for them. Yes, we are now 100 years beyond Mati Hari's time, but not much has changed, if you really think about it. You may also find yourself questioning the objectivity of legal systems, another question that is not new. Same issues, perhaps a different group. Well worth the read. Thought provoking and provides an escape at the same time!
Really good.I just started reading it today and I had to force myself to take a little break from it.
Mata Hari...was she a spy or wasn't she? Did she serve as a double agent for Germany and France throughout World War I or did a malicious allegation with zero evidence destroy her life? In this re-imagining based on nonfiction accounts, author Paulo Coelho says no. Her only crime was her choice to be an independent woman, exposing the world to feminism for the very first time, and for that she lost her life by firing squad. As Mata Hari waited for execution, one of her last requests was for a pen and paper to write letters. Over the past two decades, Germany, Holland, and the U.K.’s MI5 released their files on Mata Hari which provided tons of insight and information into her life. Mr. Coelho combined information from these letters, a researched timeline, along with creative liberties to write a first-person account of Mata Hari's life starting from about age sixteen. I loved Mr. Coelho's summarized portrayal of this amazing woman. I wish this novel was longer because I wanted to know her much more. However, I highly respect that Mr. Coelho didn't just make stuff up to fill the pages. I'd like to think that The Spy is as fact-based as possible and if the book feels too short it's because you can't write what you don't know. Fairly recently, I read another re-imagining about nonfiction characters where the opposite was done and I have lost all respect for that particular author. The Spy is the first book I have ever read by Paulo Coelho and I look forward to exploring his other work. But most importantly, I look forward to doing my own research about the amazing Mata Hari. If you enjoy stories about strong women who push the boundaries for our gender, then do some research for yourself...and consider checking out The Spy!
A book that cists over $10 shoukd not be 137 pages. Overall somewhat interesting.