The Spy by Paulo Coelho – Book Review

Paulo Coelho the author of famous novels like The Alchemist (1988) and Adultery (2014) is back with another one, The Spy (2016). This time he has brought a true story of a famous exotic dancer known in the 20th century as Mata Hari. His real name was Margaretha Zelle. She was courtesan, libertine and an icon of sexuality and a target to an old-world order that couldn’t realize of a woman with her boldness. In 1917, on evidence that was dubious at best, willfully ignored otherwise, she was tried as a German spy and executed.

It isn’t surprising that Mata Hari has retained her cultural prevalence for almost a century after her death, most famously with a Greta Garbo film from 1931. Her life, or at least the popular story and legend surrounding it, combines sexy wartime conspiracy with a bold and unapologetic woman—either a sly guide of the patriarchy or a devious and manipulative femme fatale (a stock character of a mysterious and seductive woman whose charms entrap her lovers, often leading them into compromising, dangerous, and deadly situations ), depending on your point of view—the kind of character whose struggle will feel modern so long as strong and independent women are looked upon with hostility.

Novel, The Spy takes the form of letters from Hari to a lawyer, written as she awaits her end in jail. Coelho, a dime-store philosopher whose work is beloved by those who find motivational posters motivating, hasn’t written a thriller with The Spy, nor is it a feminist manifesto or bit of scholarly history. Instead, it’s merely the latest of Coelho’s surface-level narratives to be stitched over with “insights” that only sound profound if you’re not really paying attention.

Her performances, where she claimed ties to Asian and Egyptian cultural traditions, fit neatly into Coelho’s “we are all one soul” worldview. (“I was nothing, not even my body,” she says of being undressed on stage. “I was just movements communing with the universe.”) And by presenting her beliefs on sex, her body, and self-expression as indisputable immense truths, he suggests a reasonable explanation for her offhand view toward societal constraints, even when violating those norms put her in danger.

The problem is that he goes too far in this direction. She gets one moment that conveys her well-known glow—throwing someone off her scent by saying of course she’s being followed, “I am beautiful, seductive, and famous”—but is utterly anonymous otherwise. Meanwhile, Coelho is so blunt about his themes that it removes any charge the reader might get from discovering her story or whatever message they might take out of it. Consider this early passage, where by calling attention to his insights, he renders them inherently bland.

She advocates it in following catchy lines, 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.

Instead of providing context for how Hari was viewed in her era, he instead offers cutesy cameos. Hari meets a man “called Freud—I can’t remember his first name.” She attends a performance of The Rite of Spring “by an unknown Russian composer whose name I still cannot remember.” She gets “a copy of this book once, called the Koran” about “some prophet whose name I also can’t recall.”

Those examples are spread throughout the book, incidentally, raising the question of whether amnesia would be a help or obstruction with espionage.

Unfortunately, the Mata Hari who emerges from these under realized pages is not fearless but clueless, not outgoing but incoherent — and, finally, no more reasonable or interesting for the Coelho aphorisms that keep tumbling off her scented lips: “When we don’t know where life is taking us, we are never lost. . . . Though at the moment I am a prisoner, my spirit remains free. . . . The true sin is living so far removed from absolute harmony.”

In my opinion, It can be rightly said a feminist manifesto or a piece of scholarly history because it has explored the then time happenings, extensively.

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