Monday, December 5, 2016

Something New

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“THE SPY” by Paulo Coelho [translated from the Portuguese by Zoe Perry] (Penguin / Hamish Hamilton, $37)


According to both the blurb of this book and every website I have looked up, the Brazilian novelist Paulo Coelho is an international sensation. Apparently he is the biggest-selling Portuguese-language author of all time; his books have been translated into 81 languages and have sold tens of millions of copies; and he runs a website with a huge international readership.

This can mean only one of two things. Either (a.) he is some sort of genius and as good as the hype says; or (b.) he is a popular writer, who has found a way of tapping into a huge, but undiscerning, readership.

I had read nothing of Coelho’s before I picked up The Spy and I am therefore judging him by this one book alone. Perhaps his other work is much better, but what The Spy tells me is that option (b.) is the more likely option. This is a simplistic novel whose attempts at profundity or commentary on the human condition are at best clichés and whose depiction of history is of the school textbook sort that explains obvious things to readers who are expected not to know much. It has, however, the advantage of being short – 190 small pages with widely spaced lines, allowing it to be read easily in two or three hours. Maybe this is part of the secret of Coelho’s success. Keep it brief, stupid.

I am irresistibly reminded of the classic scene in Black Books where Dylan Moran hustles a customer out of his second-hand bookshop by urging him to buy a book, with the immortal line “Take it! Take it! It’s dreadful but it’s short!” There are readers who like the satisfaction of having read a book without having to read too much. Actually, there must be millions of such readers.

Anyway, enough of my crude Billingsgate, or I’ll have another blogger calling me “ultra-toxic” again. Let’s get down to what The Spy is about.

The Spy is the latest of what must by now be dozens of attempts to fictionalise the life of Margaretha Gertruda Zelle, the Dutchwoman better know by her stage name “Mata Hari”, who was tried and executed by the French for spying in 1917, when the First World War had reached a crisis point for the Allies. Mata Hari was an “exotic dancer” (i.e. high-class striptease artist) and a “courtesan” (i.e. high-class prostitute). Despite the publicity she concocted, she had no oriental or Javanese ancestry. Her “Eastern” dances were largely self-devised, given that her knowledge of Balinese dance came from a few performances, put on for Dutch tourists, which she attended while married to a Dutch officer in what were then called the Dutch East Indies. Her appeal was largely her willingness to shed clothes en dansant, and to pose for what were basically the soft porn or cheesecake photographs of their age.

Paul Coelho begins by reproducing a journalist’s contemporary account of Mata Hari bravely facing the firing squad, refusing a blindfold and greeting her executioners courteously. This is probably the iconic scene upon which much of the woman’s legend rests, especially as the idea of a firing squad killing a woman is one that still makes most people cringe. In ancient fiction films about Mata Hari I have seen both Greta Garbo – in soft focus - and Jeanne Moreau play this scene for maximum sentimental effect. Whatever else she may have been, Mata Hari was apparently brave in the face of death, reminding me of Malcolm’s line about the thane of Cawdor: “Nothing in [her] life became [her] like the leaving it.”

After this prologue, the first two-thirds of the novel are the [fictitious] first-person memoirs of Mata Hari, presented in the form of letters written to Edouard Clunet, the lawyer who defended her in her trial for espionage. As she writes, Mata Hari sits in St-Lazare prison, hoping that she will receive a presidential pardon and reprieve. The last third of the novel is a reply from her lawyer, after she has been condemned to death.

Almost at once, the novel howls its main theme at us, as Mata Hari declares: “The crimes I did commit, I escaped, the greatest of which was being an emancipated and independent woman in a world ruled by men.” (p.12) And: “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.” (p.15) Thus Coelho rams the point home, with Mata Hari later declaring: “I realized that I had always been a warrior, facing my battles without any bitterness; they were part of my life.”

So this is the tragedy of a strong, independent woman who is being condemned by the evil patriarchy for living a varied and independent sex life. Ah! If only she had lived in 2016 when we are so much more enlightened!

In her [fictitious] memoirs, Margaretha Zelle is raped by her school principal when she is 16, and marries the Dutch army officer Rudolf McLeod at 17 simply to escape the stifling boredom of provincial Holland. In Indonesia she gives birth to a daughter, but her husband is a sadistic brute who frequently beats her and treats her like a whore. She leaves husband and small daughter, returns to Holland, then flees to Paris where she remakes herself as Mata Hari the exotic dancer. She exchanges sex for the money of a series of wealthy sugar daddies (briefly sketched in) until she realizes, in her mid-30s, this won’t last as younger dancers are now exposing their wares and stealing her éclat. She suggests to her manager that she find something else.

Enter a German entrepreneur, waiting to make her the sensation of Berlin.

She arrives in Berlin just as the First World War is beginning and is offered job as a spy, which, at first, she nobly turns down. But later she accepts the commission from a German consul in the neutral Netherlands, she being paid a handsome sum of money. Returning, by a roundabout route, to Paris, she at once advises the French of her role and hopes they will accept her as a double agent. But they are suspicious of her and gradually come to see her as a German spy plain and simple.

            There is nothing new in the “defence” case that Paulo Coelho makes for Mata Hari with regard to her espionage. It is now well known – and has been discussed in many books – that in the war Mata Hari passed no information of any real value over to the Germans; that everything she disclosed was in the nature of worthless society gossip; that no really incriminating evidence was ever found or produced by the French tribunal that put her on trial; and that she was probably “stitched up” by German intelligence once they understood that she was trying to work as a double agent from the French. It appears that the Germans deliberately sent a “secret” message in a code which they knew the French had already broken, and which they knew the French would intercept, in order to incriminate her and get rid of her. As a “spy”, Mata Hari was a hopeless amateur and it was probably an injustice that she was executed.

            Even so, she did take money from the Germans to spy (not even the most sympathetic accounts of her have ever denied this); and her trial took place at a time when the Allies were hard-pressed, seemed on the verge of defeat, and all sorts of rumours about subversive “enemies within” were creating a mood of hysteria. This was not unique to France, of course. In New Zealand in the later years of the First World War, the demagogue Howard Elliot and his Protestant Political Association were building up sectarian fever by telling audiences that Catholics were responsible for the war and were conspiring for the defeat of the British Empire. In England, the MP Noel Pemberton-Billing gained a large following by claiming to have uncovered a vast, German-financed, conspiracy to sap the war effort by corrupting the sexual morals of the British. His efforts centred on shows put on by the American lesbian “exotic dancer” Maud Allen, who was in some ways the British equivalent of Mata Hari, although she had nothing to do with spying. (See my post on James Hayward’s Myths and Legends of the First World War. The case of Maud Allen was also fictionalised in Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy.) Add this mood to the fact that Mata Hari really had taken pay from the Germans to spy, and the French prosecution of her was not all that unreasonable, even if the case they made against her was a feeble one. Perhaps they should have stopped at simply imprisoning her.

            But Coelho underplays (or is not sufficiently aware of) this historical context, so intent is he in presenting Mata Hari as a proto-feminist martyr being punished for her sexual independence. En passant, her long (pre-war) Paris sojourn allows Coelho to drop in comments on historical artistic figures, which will probably seem very revealing to less sophisticated readers. Of Picasso, the novel’s Mata Hari remarks: “I was extremely embarrassed by that ugly, wide-eyed impolite man who fancied himself the greatest of the greats. His friends were much more interesting, including an Italian man, Amedeo Modigliani, who seemed more noble, more elegant, and who at no point tried to force any conversation.” (pp.69-70) Of the premiere of The Rite of Spring she says “that idiot Nijinsky… imitated the masturbation scene from my first performance in Paris.” (p.77) And so on.

            Making matters even more irritating is the very high proportion of self-expository dialogue. The first man Mata Hari meets in Paris gives her a handy précis of the Paris Exposition and the Dreyfus Affair in case you’ve never heard of them. Later Mata Hari herself makes naïve comments about the outbreak of the world war in case you don’t know about that either. As for the German who recruits her in the Hague, his incredibly stilted lines would shame the clumsiest of old-school Hollywood scriptwriters. “Even with England on their side, and even though our stupid allies – the Austrians – have their hands full trying to halt the Russian advance, we will win in the end…” (p.128) “As you might imagine, it is impossible to cross a border during a war. So the only alternative is to travel first to London and, from there, to the city where, soon, we shall march under the imposing – but foolishly named – Arc de Triomphe.” (p.130) Note those improbable bits in parentheses, folks.

I do not know whether to blame Paulo Coelho or his translator for the clunky organization of so many sentences. Stop for a moment and consider the word order of this shocker, wherein Mata Hari again bangs away at the novel’s major theme: “I suffered before the judges of the Third War Council, as if the Germans and the French, who are killing each other, couldn’t leave alone a woman whose greatest sin was having a free mind in a world where people are becoming increasingly closed-off well enough alone…” (p.137) How many times did you read it before the last three words made any sense?

At which point, I am sure, some fan of Coelho will tell me that I am missing a major point. After all, this novel is supposed to be Mata Hari’s testimony written under the stress of being in jail. And in her many self-contradictions, Mata Hari is supposed to be (ta-da!!!) an unreliable narrator. Thus when she declares of her disrobing stage performances: “Contrary to what the critics who never understood me said, when I was onstage I simply forgot about the woman I was and offered everything to God. That was why I was able to undress so easily. At that moment I was nothing, not even my body. I was just movements communing with the universe.” (p.57). Then, a page or two later, she completely contradicts herself by saying how she calculatedly performed a striptease to gain fame and applause. Thus when she tells us that the wife of the first man she slept with in Paris told her to beware of falling in love and she – as an independent woman making her own destiny – took this advice. And then, late in the day, there is the sudden introduction of “my one true love” and their reciting Song of Songs as they make love (p.136).

Clearly, then, silly old foolish me, I have not understood the incredibly sophisticated concept of the unreliable narrator. This is especially true in that – in the novel’s last third – the lawyer Edouard Clunet takes over the narration and repeatedly tells Mata Hari (and us) that she has not helped her case in court by so often lying and presenting her fabricated past history as if it is fact. Yet Monsieur Clunet is himself in love with the exotic dancer, and he too gives us the theory that she is being punished for being so independent. So on come précis of Oscar Wilde’s story of the nightingale and the rose and of the legend of Psyche and Eros to tell us that Mata Hari was not only a strong and independent woman punished by the patriarchy, but that she was a martyr of true love.

At which point I say “Merdre!” and “Fiddle-dee-dee!

As far as this novel’s historicity is concerned, I will say one positive thing. Paulo Coelho makes it clear that (as her final prison mug-shots show) by the time Mata Hari, aged 40, was executed, she was already puffing up into middle-age. Her years as the glamorous performer were far behind her, and she was not the young woman presented so romantically in movies.

Otherwise, I find The Spy synthetic tosh. Paulo Coelho wins his huge audience by telling them what they want to hear – in this case that a minor spy with a dodgy past was somehow a martyr for independent womanhood. This novel leaves me feeling as I did when I reviewed Richard Davenport-Hines’ An English Affair on this blog. Examining the Profumo Affair, Davenport-Hines argued truthfully enough that the affair was blown out of all proportion by a sensation-mongering press and a conservative judiciary. But in the process, he presenting as innocent victims people who, for all the sensationalism, were a genuinely sleazy bunch. Likewise Coelho tells us truthfully enough – and as many other have already done – that Mata Hari’s trial was rigged and the case against her feeble. But for all his special pleading, this minor and incompetent spy was no martyr for the freedom of women.

Querulous footnote: By coincidence, the American pop novelist Michelle Moran has also produced a novel about Mata Hari this year, Mata Hari’s Last Dance and it is also presented as a first-person confession. I’m not suggesting that it’s plagiarism or that one author has copied the other. I’m just noting that, with 2017 about to be centenary of the woman’s death, it’s such a freaking obvious idea.

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