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Paulo Coelho's 'Spy' uncovers the life of Mata Hari through her final letter

“Although I Tried To Base My Novel On The Actual Facts Of Mata Hari’s Life, I Had To Create Some Dialogue, Merge Certain Scenes, Change The Order Of A Few Events, And Eliminate Anything I Thought Was Not Relevant To The Narratives,' Coelho Says.

PTI | Updated on: 11 Dec 2016, 01:17:33 PM
Paulo Coelho

New Delhi:

Bestselling author Paulo Coelho retells the unforgettable story of history’s most enigmatic woman Mata Hari in her voice through her final letter.

Termed as a novel based on real events, “The Spy” is translated from the Portuguese work by Zoe Perry.

“Although I tried to base my novel on the actual facts of Mata Hari’s life, I had to create some dialogue, merge certain scenes, change the order of a few events, and eliminate anything I thought was not relevant to the narratives,” Coelho says.

When Mata Hari arrived in Paris she was penniless. Within months she was the most celebrated woman in the city. As a dancer, she shocked and delighted audiences; as a courtesan, she bewitched the era’s richest and most powerful men.

But as paranoia consumed a country at war, Mata Hari’s lifestyle brought her under suspicion. In 1917, she was arrested in her hotel room on the Champs Elysees, and accused of espionage.

“The Spy” is the unforgettable story of a woman who dared to defy convention and who paid the ultimate price.

On her execution, Coelho writes, “Shortly before 5 am, a party of 18 men - most of them officers of the French army - climbed to the second floor of Saint-Lazare, the women’s prison in Paris. Guided by a warder carrying a torch to light the lamps, they stopped in front of cell 12.

“Nuns were charged with looking after the prison. Sister Leonide opened the door and asked that everyone wait outside as she entered the cell, struck a match against the wall, and lit the lamp inside. Then she called one of the other sisters to help.

“With great affection and care, Sister Leonide draped her arm around the sleeping body. The woman struggled to waken, as though disinterested in anything. According to the nun’s statement, when she finally awoke, it was as though she emerged from a peaceful slumber.”

When a French lieutenant held out a white cloth to one of the sisters and asked them to blindfold Mata Hari’s eyes, she asked “Must I wear that?”

“If Madame prefers not to, it is not mandatory,” replied the lieutenant.

“Mata Hari was neither bound nor blindfolded; she stood, gazing steadfastly at her executioners, as the priest, the nuns, and her lawyer stepped away,” the book, published by Penguin Random House, says.

After she was fired upon, Mata Hari remained upright for a fraction of a second.

“She did not die the way you see in moving pictures after people are shot. She did not plunge forward or backward, and she did not throw her arms up or to the side. She collapsed onto herself, her head still up, her eyes still open. One of the soldiers fainted.

“Then her knees buckled and her body fell to the right, legs doubled up beneath the fur coat. And there she lay, motionless, with her face turned toward the heavens,” Coelho writes.

As Mata Hari waited for her execution in a Paris prison, one of her last requests was for a pen and some paper to write letters.

Over the past twenty years, MI5 in the UK and Germany and Holland have released their files on Mata Hari, and it provided Coelho with a trove of information as he was researching his novel.

“I ended up with a mountain of documents,” Coelho says, “but also with a question: What did Mata Hari write in those letters? And how was she caught in so many traps, set by both friends and enemies

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First Published : 11 Dec 2016, 01:08:00 PM

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