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.