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The Spy
     

The Spy

by Paulo Coelho
 

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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. The story of her celebrated yet mysterious life as an exotic dancer and courtesan, and her controversial execution as a spy during the First World War unfolds as a fascinating first-person narrative of

Overview

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. The story of her celebrated yet mysterious life as an exotic dancer and courtesan, and her controversial execution as a spy during the First World War unfolds as a fascinating first-person narrative of self-creation and bravery.

Her only crime was to be an independent woman: "I do not know if the future will remember me, but if it should, may no one ever view me as a victim, but as someone who moved forward with courage, and paid the price she had to pay."

On the occasion of the centenary of Mata Hari's execution for espionage in 1917, Paulo Coelho reconsiders her life and character in a fictional memoir. In a series of letters, written from prison on the eve of her death, Mata Hari reflects on the choices she has made to always pursue her own truth--from her childhood in a small Dutch town, to unhappy years as the wife of an alcoholic diplomat in Java, to her calculated and self-fashioned rise to celebrity in Paris and across Europe as an exotic dancer and confidante to the most powerful men of the time. Though there was little evidence to incriminate her, Mata Hari was unable to escape persecution and prosecution by French military intelligence, and at the novel's end, Coelho re-creates a final letter, written by Mata Hari's lawer, Edouard Clunet, that offers a captivating view of Europe at war and the fatal price of suspicion.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
10/17/2016
Coelho's striking novel about Margaretha Zelle, aka Mata Hari, the Dutch courtesan and "exotic" dancer who was executed in 1917 for treason and in all likelihood was innocent, unfolds through letters to her lawyer that she hopes will be given to her daughter if she is killed. Smooth, assured writing reveals a woman who refuses to be a victim: "someone who moved forward with courage, fearlessly paying the price she had to pay." She was raped by her headmaster at school and abused by her husband (a Dutch military officer), and she retaliated by exploiting the European love of the mysterious Orient through her "Eastern" veil dances. Although the novel is not Coelho's strongest work, the ending is brilliant in its irony, and throughout, he displays an ability to inhabit her voice. Through the letters, he illustrates the difficulties of being an independent woman in that time and place. By the end, readers will believe they've read Zelle's actual letters. (Nov.)
Kirkus Reviews
2016-10-06
Coelho’s (Adultery, 2014, etc.) novel about Mata Hari, the notorious and (in all likelihood) falsely accused World War I spy, hews closely to the facts.A prologue reveals what we already know from history: Mata Hari was executed by firing squad in Paris on Oct. 15, 1917. The rest of the book consists of Mata’s fictional letter to her defense attorney, M. Clunet, written while on death row in the Saint-Lazare prison, and a similarly speculative letter of regret by Clunet. Mata cynically and philosophically details her bare-bones autobiography: she was born Margaretha Zelle to a bourgeois family in Holland. Raped by a school principal at 16, she is desperate to escape school and Holland: this she achieves by marrying a Dutch army captain and moving to Indonesia. The officer beats and sexually abuses her for years, until another military wife’s suicide and a performance by Javanese dancers inspire Margaretha to rebel and return to Europe. Making her way to Paris, she introduces herself as Mata Hari to an impresario, Monsieur Guimet, who invites her to premiere her act—a spectacle that combines Java-esque dance moves and strip tease—at his museum. Her performances, a mélange of titillation and sophistication, quickly catapult her to fame in the priciest nightclubs; soon she's the toast of Paris. With this go riches accumulated as the mistress of wealthy industrialists and bankers. Living only for pleasure, Mata is oblivious to the approaching hostilities of the Great War, so when she is invited to perform in Berlin, she goes without hesitation only to find that she is being recruited as a spy for the kaiser. What follows is a grim comedy of errors as Mata, after traveling back to Paris through a war zone, offers her services to France as a double agent. Unfortunately, her French handler has a hidden agenda. The absurdity of the charges against Mata Hari comes through clearly, but even as she tells her own story we never get a sense of her humanity, only her various personas and masks. A sympathetic but sketchy portrait of a legend.

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9781524732066
Publisher:
Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date:
11/22/2016
Pages:
208
Sales rank:
179
Product dimensions:
5.00(w) x 7.90(h) x 1.00(d)

Read an Excerpt

Part I

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.

Meet the Author

One of the most influential writers of our time, PAULO COELHO is the author of many international best sellers, including Adultery, The Alchemist, Aleph, Eleven Minutes, and Manuscript Found in Accra. Translated into 80 languages, his books have sold more than 195 million copies in more than 170 countries. He is a member of the Brazilian Academy of Letters and has received the Chevalier de l'Ordre National de la Légion d'Honneur. In 2007, he was named a United Nations Messenger of Peace.

Brief Biography

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
Website:
http://www.paulocoelho.com

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