When I was a kid, back when dinosaurs roamed the earth, I wanted to have adventures. My favorite hero, Trixie Beldon, was solving crimes along with her best friend and siblings. I remember praying that I would have an adventurous life too.
As an adult, a friend once suggested that I was an international spy, but rather than seeking out political and military secrets, I was checking out the hospital systems in various countries around the world. That was my adventure. I’d live in foreign countries, get sick or injured and have to be admitted into local hospitals.
Those hospitals were dangerous places! I still have a fondness for detectives and spies. When I read the blurb for the novel The Spy, by Paulo Coelho, based on the life of Mata Hari, I snapped it up. I was disappointed with both the character and the translation.
I find that very few novels can withstand translation. Words don’t always have direct translations in other languages, like ‘gezellig’ in Dutch, or ‘hygge’ in Danish. In order to get the meaning across, the flow of words gets disrupted. When this happens, sentences are either choppy, or very, very long.The music of the language is lost. (To understand what I mean by music of the language, read something aloud, as if trying to lull a five-year-old to sleep.)
In The Spy, in translation from Portuguese, the cadence is often off. The dialogue is awkward – no one really talks or writes letters like that. Some things just don’t make sense.
The story is told from at least two points of view, but the main voice is that of Mata Hari, herself. She left her home in the Netherlands at a young age, marrying a military man many years older. They were stationed in Indonesia, where her husband’s brutality and infidelity were revealed often.
She gave birth to two children, but her son was murdered soon after his birth. The wife of another officer committed suicide at a party by shooting herself in the chest, right in front of Mata Hari. This gave her the push she needed to force her husband to take her back to The Netherlands. Shortly after arriving there, she left him and her daughter, and ran away to Paris. Rather than show regret over leaving her child, she commended herself for the ingenuity and skill of leaving without telling anyone.
The rest of the novel chronicles her rise as an exotic dancer and her accumulation of lovers. The character is quite impressed by her own beauty and her ability to captivate men. She used men for “joy, jewellery, or a place in society,” without any hint of shame. The puritans are blamed for her capture and trial as a spy. From her point of view, and that of her lover, she was the victim of a witch-hunt, persecuted, tried and convicted with no evidence.
While Mata Hari is an intriguing character, I found it very hard to like her. She comes across as callous, arrogant and selfish. Perhaps some of that is due to the translation, perhaps not. It’s not my sort of spy novel, but does give an interesting perspective of women and how they were treated around the time of the First World War.