Finally, an author I am familiar with! Paulo Coelho, being Brazilian, is very famous in Spain and his books have great success. He is an internationally acclaimed author and he has written bestsellers such as The Alchemist and Warrior of the Light. This said, I’ve never been a big fan, but that’s probably because back when I was younger I only read fantasy and science fiction. The (good) thing about reading though is that the more you read the more you want to read and, eventually, you don’t mind the genre anymore. What do you know, maybe one day I’ll read James Joyce’s Ulysses. For now, though, it was Coelho’s The Spy.
In this book, Coelho is trying to give us an account of the famous Mata Hari’s life from her own point of view. Through the letters she was said to be writing in her final days, we discover this woman’s journey from early childhood to the time of her execution. The facts of her life and her so-called spy work were researched by the author through the documents that MI5 and the German and French intelligence services have been releasing over the past twenty years. As I read the first lines, which introduce us to the story by starting at the very end, I felt excited about the story and what it was going to tell me about the mysterious dancer.
Sadly, I don’t feel it told me as much as I expected. After reading the book, which felt very short to me, although it has 208 pages, I was left with the impression that a part of it is missing. I suppose a story that leaves you wanting more is not necessarily a bad thing but in this case I was needing at least another two hundred pages. For this to be a novel it lacks descriptions of settings and detail. So. Much. More. Detail! For example, when both Mata Hari’s letter and her lawyer’s letter comment on the one man she loved, they mention him in the passing, as if he was nothing. It’s as if I’d been watching a movie on fast-forward.
I appreciate, though, that the story is supposedly told through Mata Hari’s own writingand with little time to elaborate, but this is one of those time were one cannot be too literal about deadlines. I also appreciate that there is much more we don’t know about her than what those secret documents could have revealed to anybody. The thing is, you either write a historical account of her life or you write a novel, and Coelho does comment at the end of the book that he had to make some changes to fit the flow of the story, which make it clear this is wanting to be a novel.
And lets talk about the flow of the story. Sometimes, when it skips forward in time, which is understandable – Mata Hari wasn’t going to write about every single event in her life -, the transitions are very harsh and it takes a minute or two to notice that time has moved on. The same goes for talking about other characters. She might be talking about a conversation with an aristocrat and suddenly you find yourself reading about a general (made up example, by the way, don’t go looking for the aristocrat and the general in the book).
There was one thing, though, that I enjoyed greatly and it was the characterisation. Mata Hari’s voice is very strong and in her letters we recognise the pride and the independence that surround her legend. There is strength in the way Coelho interprets her writing of that letter and it’s consistent with the mythical image we all have. Coelho depicts her as a woman whose only crime was to be too independent and not bending to the role society ascribed to her gender, victim of her own fame and the times she lived in.
Although I was disappointed overall by the story, there is no denying that I have learnt about this woman and she has become much more than a vague figure with the words ‘exotic dancer’ and ‘spy’ etched on it. If The Spy doesn’t quite give her the depth and realism that I’d expect from any novel, it does however lend this woman a voice, something she had been denied so many years ago, although I am sure she would be comforted by the knowledge that she hasn’t been forgotten and her legend lives on in our minds and, now, in Paulo Coelho’s writing.
The Spy has been available since the end of November.