November 15, 1917, 5am — “She drew on her black stockings, which seemed grotesque in such circumstances, and stepped into her high-heeled shoes adorned with silk laces. As she rose from the bed, she reached for a hook in the corner of her cell, where a floor-length fur coat hung, its sleeves and collar trimmed with another type of animal fur, possibly fox. She slipped it over the heavy silk kimono in which she had slept.
“Her black hair was disheveled; she brushed it carefully, securing it at the nape of her neck. On top of her head she perched a felt hat and tied it with a silk ribbon, so the wind would not blow it out of place as she stood in the clearing where she was being led. Slowly she bent down to take a pair of black gloves.
“Then, nonchalantly, she said in a calm voice, ‘I am ready.’”
So begins “The Spy,” a new book by best-selling Brazilian author Paulo Coelho, which brings to life the story of Mata Hari — the world-famous Dutch exotic dancer and courtesan who was convicted of being a spy during World War I.
One hundred years ago this month, she was executed by a French firing squad at Vincennes outside of Paris under charges of committing espionage for Germany.
“I believe her only crime was to be an independent woman,” insists Coelho, talking to the Costco Connection from his home in Switzerland.
This is the first historic novel by the author of the “The Alchemist” — one of the best-selling books in history, setting the Guinness World Record for the most translated book by a living author. With 210 million copies sold to date in 81 languages, it is an allegorical novel that follows the journey of Santiago, an Andalusian shepherd boy who believed a recurring dream to be prophetic. A Romani fortune-teller interprets the dream as a prophecy, which sends the boy on a spiritual quest to find treasure in the Egyptian pyramids.
“I think [“The Alchemist”] is just a great story of believing in yourself, which is the most wonderful thing we can do,” notes Coelho, who takes readers on a different sort of quest in “The Spy.”
In this fictional memoir, Coelho reconsiders Mata Hari’s life and character through a series of letters she writes from prison on the eve of her death as she reflects on the choices she has made — from her privileged but challenging childhood in a small Dutch town, to a stint as a teacher where she is raped by the headmaster, to unhappy years as the wife of an alcoholic diplomat in Java.
We learn of her rise to celebrity across Europe as an exotic dancer, and gain perspective on her role as a confidante to the most powerful men of the time. Finally, Coelho gives us insight into her final days, as she speaks of the only man she truly loved who betrayed her, and her acceptance of her death sentence.
While the tale is the work of Coelho’s imagination, he says it is based on a letter Mata Hari wrote that was mysteriously lost.
“As I was doing research, I found a reference about a letter Mata Hari had supposedly written, which proved to be a wonderful starting point,” shares Coelho, adding he was inspired to write the book during a conversation with his attorney on the topic of injustice. “He mentioned Mata Hari in our discussion, I knew I had to write about this remarkable woman who was oppressed by men, and society — and still, she endured.”
Hope Katz Gibbs is a freelance journalist living in Richmond, VA, and the author of TrulyAmazingWomen.com — a list that Mata Hari would surely top.