20 November 2016

Review #557: The Spy by Paulo Coelho, Zoë Perry (Translator)

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

“Death is nothing, nor life either, for that matter. To die, to sleep, to pass into nothingness, what does it matter? Everything is an illusion.”

----Mata Hari

Paulo Coelho, the international bestselling author, pens a gripping and part fictional tale on the life of a legendary dancer cum falsely accused as a spy, Mata Hari in his new novel, The Spy that opens with the execution of this exotic and talented dancer by the French, but then the author spins a riveting autobiographical account of the dancer's life through a fictional letter penned by the dancer herself addressing to her lawyer. She is an epitome of grace, individuality, extravagant lifestyle, exquisite and unique fashion style, independence and her erotic dance moves in the early 20th century in Paris.


In his new novel, Paulo Coelho, best-selling author of The Alchemist and Adultery, brings to life one of history's most enigmatic women: Mata Hari.


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.

Margaretha Zelle, a Dutch girl born into a middle class family in Holland, but in her high school she gets raped by the school principal and after her parents' divorce, she moves with an uncle to get teacher's training in order to work as a teacher in a kindergarten. One fine day, she replies to a matrimonial ad in the newspaper for an army man looking for a wife, and within three months of meeting the man, she gets married to that army personnel and moves to Indonesia, but sadly her life turns tragic as she soon becomes victim to sexual and physical abuse by her husband. But her painful ordeal with marital life soon comes to an end, when the suicide of another army's wife irks her up and fills her with promise and strength to leave her husband. She makes her way to Paris, where her talent of dancing is spotted by a wealthy man, who gives her the opportunity to showcase her talent in the opening of his museum. And within few months she reaches the top as she performs in one lavish party to another posh hotel auditorium, until she becomes a household name in all of Paris. Her exquisite taste for fashion earned her the hearts of many wealthy men from bankers to industrialists who only provided extravagance lifestyle for her, but she had little idea about the approaching war in the background. Soon she gets caught up in the crossfire of the war, as she is asked to work as a German spy, but after traveling back to Paris from Berlin, she works as a double agent from the France government, and within months, she is arrested by the French officials who threw her up in the prison, finally meeting her inevitable end of execution by the French in Paris, the city where she became Mata Hari.

The author has resurrected this remarkarble and legendary dancer and spy through this book, although he fails to explore into the depth of the great persona of Mata Hari thereby leaving her an incomplete portrait of her. The historical facts accurately syncs with the story line, and it proves that the author has done his research thoroughly. Not only that the readers will be carried away to that world before the Great War in Paris where glitters, extravaganza and exquisite artistic qualities gave a definition to the then Paris. The author strikingly captures the backdrop and the readers will be bound to time travel top that era when everything shimmered golden and people were defined by their rich tastes in art, music and dance. From the clothes to the food to the streets to the hotels to everything depicted that French flair that the author has managed to portray through the tale of Mata Hari.

The author's writing is okay and not that great unlike his previous books, although the writing is laced with way too historical facts and less emotions, that will be difficult for the readers to contemplate with the story line. The narrative is lucid laced with the aristocratic flair that sync well with the demeanor of the central character. The pacing is really fast, but that does not support a biographical book like this one, as it lacked depth thoroughly.

The character development is not that good, although the readers will get a thorough and vivid look into the life and style of Mata Hari, the woman who was accused as a spy based on meager evidence. In one word, Mata Hari's life is painful and sad even though she drowned herself in an exorbitant means of life, always found in the arms of her wealthy married men, and her indifference to the war became her enemy. Mata Hari was a daughter, lover, wife and a hopeless mother who could not save her children from the wrath of the her husband's enemies. Her beauty and grace is the only thing that comes first into the minds when people remember her name, and not to mention her boldness from stripping her clothes while dancing Java-nese dance style.

In a nutshell, this accurate autobiographical story penned by Coelho is highly compelling and enlightening enough to give the readers a taste of the notorious dancer and spy of the twentieth century, Mata Hari.

Verdict: Vivid, bright and colorful account of Mata Hari's life but alas it lacks depth. 

Author Info:
The Brazilian author PAULO COELHO was born in 1947 in the city of Rio de Janeiro. Before dedicating his life completely to literature, he worked as theatre director and actor, lyricist and journalist. In 1986, PAULO COELHO did the pilgrimage to Saint James of Compostella, an experience later to be documented in his book The Pilgrimage. In the following year, COELHO published The Alchemist. Slow initial sales convinced his first publisher to drop the novel, but it went on to become one of the best selling Brazilian books of all time. Other titles include Brida (1990), The Valkyries (1992), By the river Piedra I sat Down and Wept (1994), the collection of his best columns published in the Brazilian newspaper Folha de São Paulo entitle Maktub (1994), the compilation of texts Phrases (1995), The Fifth Mountain (1996), Manual of a Warrior of Light (1997), Veronika decides to die (1998), The Devil and Miss Prym (2000), the compilation of traditional tales in Stories for parents, children and grandchildren (2001), Eleven Minutes (2003), The Zahir (2005), The Witch of Portobello (2006) and Winner Stands Alone (to be released in 2009). During the months of March, April, May and June 2006, Paulo Coelho traveled to celebrate the 20th anniversary of his pilgrimage to Saint James of Compostella in 1986. He also held surprise book signings - announced one day in advance - in some cities along the way, to have a chance to meet his readers. In ninety days of pilgrimage the author traveled around the globe and took the famous Transiberrian train that took him to Vladivostok. During this experience Paulo Coelho launched his blog Walking the Path - The Pilgrimage in order to share with his readers his impressions. Since this first blog Paulo Coelho has expanded his presence in the internet with his daily blogs in Wordpress, Myspace & Facebook. He is equally present in media sharing sites such as Youtube and Flickr, offering on a regular basis not only texts but also videos and pictures to his readers. From this intensive interest and use of the Internet sprang his bold new project: The Experimental Witch where he invites his readers to adapt to the screen his book The Witch of Portobello. Indeed Paulo Coelho is a firm believer of Internet as a new media and is the first Best-selling author to actively support online free distribution of his work.
Visit him here 

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