The latest book by Brazilian writer Paulo Coelho, author of “The Alchemist” (1988), “Brida” (1990), “Warrior of the Light: A Manual” (1997), and “Adultery” (2014), “The Spy” (Knopf) was inspired by the life of Margaretha Zelle, a Dutch courtesan and dancer popularly known as Mata Hari, who was executed as a spy in 1917.
The book, written as a series of letters by Zelle to her attorney, to be delivered to her daughter should she be killed, offers a portrait of Mata Hari as a liberated woman who fell afoul of provincial moralism and her associations with some of the most powerful men of the era.
Dear Mr. Clunet,
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.
If things turn out as I hope, you will never receive this letter. I’ll have been pardoned. After all, I spent my life cultivating influential friends. I will hold on to the letter so that, one day, my only daughter might read it to find out who her mother was.
But if I am wrong, I have little hope that these pages, which have consumed my last week of life on Earth, will be kept. I have always been a realistic woman and I know that, once a case is settled, a lawyer will move on to the next one without a backward glance.
I can imagine what will happen after. You will be a very busy man, having gained notoriety defending a war criminal. You will have many people knocking at your door, begging for your services, for, even defeated, you attracted huge publicity. You will meet journalists interested to hear your version of events, you will dine in the city’s most expensive restaurants, and you will be looked upon with respect and envy by your peers. You will know there was never any concrete evidence against me -- only documents that had been tampered with -- but you will never publicly admit that you allowed an innocent woman to die.
Innocent? Perhaps that is not the right word. I was never innocent, not since I first set foot in this city I love so dearly. I thought I could manipulate those who wanted state secrets. I thought the Germans, French, English, Spanish would never be able to resist me -- and yet, in the end, I was the one manipulated. The crimes I did commit, I escaped, the greatest of which was being an emancipated and independent woman in a world ruled by men. I was convicted of espionage even though the only thing concrete I traded was the gossip from high-society salons.
Yes, I turned this gossip into “secrets,” because I wanted money and power. But all those who accuse me now know I never revealed anything new.
It’s a shame no one will know this. These envelopes will inevitably find their way to a dusty file cabinet, full of documents from other proceedings. Perhaps they will leave when your successor, or your successor’s successor, decides to make room and throw out old cases.
By that time, my name will have been long forgotten. But I am not writing to be remembered. I am attempting to understand things myself. Why? How is it that a woman who for so many years got everything she wanted can be condemned to death for so little?
At this moment, I look back at my life and realize that memory is a river, one that always runs backward.
Memories are full of caprice, where images of things we’ve experienced are still capable of suffocating us through one small detail or insignificant sound. The smell of baking bread wafts up to my cell and reminds me of the days I walked freely in the cafés. This tears me apart more than my fear of death or the solitude in which I now find myself.
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.
The memories always win, and with them comes a demon that is even more terrifying than melancholy: remorse. It’s my only companion in this cell, except when the sisters decide to come and chat. They do not speak about God, or condemn me for what society calls my “sins of the flesh.” Generally, they say one or two words, and the memories spout from my mouth, as if I wanted to go back in time, plunging into this river that runs backward.
One of them asked me:
“If God gave you a second chance, would you do anything differently?”
I said yes, but really, I do not know. All I know is that my current heart is a ghost town, one populated by passions, enthusiasm, loneliness, shame, pride, betrayal, and sadness. I cannot disentangle myself from any of it, even when I feel sorry for myself and weep in silence.
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.
From “The Spy” by Paulo Coelho. Copyright (c) 2016 by Paulo Coelho. Published by arrangement with Alfred A. Knopf, an imprint of The Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC.
Don’t miss Rita Braver’s interview with Coelho on “Sunday Morning” December 18!
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