Book Review of The Spy: A Novel About Mata Hari

Author: Paulo Coelho
Publisher: Vintage International
Year of Publishing: 2017

“I am a woman who was born at the wrong time and nothing can be done to fix this. I do not 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.”

The Spy is a story of a woman, Mata Hari, whose only crime was to be independent, as stated by the author. A Dutch exotic dancer and a courtesan who enchanted audiences with her erotic and beguiling performances, Hari became a spy during World War I and was arrested in 1917 for espionage.

Born in 1869 in Paris with the name Margaretha Geertruida MacLeod (Mata Hari was her stage name), the book narrates her life in her own voice while she was being held in prison. The novel begins with her childhood where she was raped by her principal at the age of sixteen, betrothed to a Dutch army officer, Rudolf MacLeod, in 1895 (later moving to Indonesia) and gives a glimpse of her curiosity for travelling, love for strange seas, and exotic worlds. As narrated by her, she had always been fond of dancing. That and the company of another officer, Andreas, were the only solace of the never-ending nightmare in Indonesia where she was beaten, cheated, and raped by her husband who enjoyed having that power over her. Hari was blessed with a baby girl but even the birth of a child could not keep her with her husband, for when they visited Europe, she separated from him, went to Paris, and started her career as a dancer in 1905 under the name of Lady MacLeod and in a year, she got divorced. 

“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.”

Mata Hari was unabashed, willing to appear nude on the stage (considered the main reason for her fame as mentioned in the book), and was acquainted with East Indian dances. She traveled widely, had numerous lovers, and lived in comfort and independence, unlike the women of those times. However, she was shot by the French on charges of spying for Germany during World War I—though these charges were widely contested.

The Spy expounds the life of a 19th century born woman, who broke all prevalent stereotypes of the women of her time, lived her life on her terms, was not ashamed to be herself, and relished in pleasure as she wished. Mata Hari was not a woman who lived life on the whims of others, refused to be a victim, and showed great courage. She slept with numerous men to get away from poverty and reached successful heights. She was a woman who tried various occupations before settling on dance and when she transgressed and climbed up the ladder, she was punished for being greedy, independent, and vain. Her story is a true example of pure slut-shaming.

Unfortunately, this is not Paulo Coelho’s best work—he portrays Mata Hari as an immoral woman. Mata Hari “symbolized women’s danger, their treacherous desires hidden beneath their rallying cry as mothers of the nation or self-sacrificing nurses”, says the author. When we see the book from an independent point of view, we would realize that there is more to the story than meets the eye in the novella and the narration feels inauthentic. The author has made her life seem simple and easy whereas in reality, it was full of struggles that a woman had to undergo during that time to become independent and hold that position of fame in the world ruled by men. 

“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.”

The book may not be the most authentic and best of literary works out there but it should be read once as a starting point to divulge into the story of the most celebrated women of France. Mata Hari is an inspirational woman who broke all the shackles of stereotypical women of the 19th and 20th century whom we are habitual to read about.


Manushree Swami

Manushree (she/her) is a history enthusiast. She is interested in studying societal constructs such as misogyny, casteism, and communal clashes etc. So much so that she will compliment you and perhaps (definitely!) fight with you on controversial theories and social divisions. She loves meeting new people.


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