This novel based on Mata Hari, is creative and captivating, as the real Mata Hari, executed as a spy on October 15th, 1917, most certainly was as well. Margaretha Geertruida Zelle was born on August 7, 1876, at a time when women had little freedom or independence. They were dependent upon their family or husband for their livelihood and, indeed, their lives.
After being raped by the principal of her boarding school at age 16, Mata Hari no longer believed that sex was an act of love between two people, as her mother had told her. In order to escape her life, she became the wife of a Dutch army officer, Rudolof Campbell MacLoed, an older man who drank too much, engaged in unsafe sex and physically abused her. She went from the frying pan into the fire.
When she left MacLoed, she reinvented herself as Mata Hari, an Oriental dancer. In truth, she was a stripper, but she performed the striptease with class. She did the Dance of the Seven Veils which brought her fame and fortune. Men were enchanted by her, and she survived using her feminine wiles.
When World War I broke out, she was at loose ends. Her career short-circuited, and she was in desperate need of money. When the German government approached her to spy on France, she accepted, although she insisted that she did not intend to pass any worthwhile information to them and had informed the French government immediately so that she could work for France. Still, she was arrested and, accused of being a double agent for Germany. She was found guilty of espionage and sentenced to death.
Making use of supposed letters that Mata Hari is said to have written shortly before her death, to her lawyer and her daughter, Coehlo has reimagined the end of her life. As Mata Hari reads her letters, the reader learns the story of her life. It is in this way that plausible doubts are cast about her being guilty of espionage, as charged. The author has done an excellent job of suggesting that she was innocent and was merely a victim of herself and her era, in much the same way as Alfred Dreyfus became a victim of his times.
In this novel, Mata Hari’s lawyer, Maitre Clunet, believed in her innocence. He believed she was convicted even though the accusations were unproven and there was little evidence of her being a double agent. Her accuser, Captain Georges Ladoux, was actually himself accused of being a German spy, a few days after her execution, but he was cleared of any wrongdoing. Although it may not have been widely known, Margaretha Zelle was Jewish at a time when anti-Semitism was widespread.
The mark of a good book is that it makes you think, and this one will surely encourage the reader to find out more about this woman who has either been maligned by history or has been justly convicted and punished. The book made me wonder if she was another victim of her own or other’s stupidity, or of petty vengeance, or possibly, even anti-Semitism? Was she condemned for her erotic and alluring talents, were women’s jealousy of her a factor, was she abandoned by those men who had curried favor with her because they feared the discovery of their own indiscretions, or was she truly a spy?
She lived in the time of the Paris World’s Fair, Pablo Picasso and Emile Zola, and she knew and had had relationships with many people in high places. She did not expect to be forsaken by all who knew her, many of whom she could bring down with the mere hint of gossip. She admitted that she was a prostitute because she provided affection for gifts. She admitted that she was a liar because she said what was necessary to support herself. However, she never admitted that she was a spy and protested her innocence until the end, when legend has it that she died with dignity. Through her supposed words and the words of her lawyer, a new light is shone upon the life of Mata Hari that bears little resemblance to the one most people have come to believe and have witnessed in film and books. When she left home, her mother gave her tulip seeds to prove to her that life goes on, that there is rebirth even after death. When she died, were the seeds really still in her possession? In a sense, Coelho has brought her back to life with a bit of honor rather than ignominy.
The narrators of this book did an incredible job reading it. Their tone of voice, accent and emotional interpretation were spot-on. The translator did an excellent job, as well, making the words flow easily and even giving it a spiritual undertone, at times. With the combined effort of the author, narrators and translator, the reader is taken into the world of Mata Hari’s life and last days and will view her calm persona and her legendary poise, even in the face of her violent end in front of a firing squad. Marguerite Gertrude Zeller died at the age of 41. Was she framed? The author has presented an alternate verdict on Mata Hari’s life which seems quite credible. The reader is left to make the final judgment.