Paulo Coelho’s author bio tells us that he “has flirted with death, escaped madness, dallied with drugs, withstood torture, experimented with magic and alchemy, studied philosophy and religion, read voraciously, lost and recovered his faith, and experienced the pain and pleasure of love. In searching for his own place in the world, he has discovered answers for the challenges that everyone faces.”
What are you murmuring? Is it “Thank heaven”? Or is it “What a schmuck”?
I would argue that the whole world divides neatly along that schism and that the “Thank heaven” crowd is far and away the vaster. As Coelho’s publisher reminds us, his books have sold more than 200 million copies and have made him “the most translated living author in the world.” (God has conceded that title, apparently.) In the face of so much affirmation, it would take a black and gnarled soul indeed to dissent, but I am that soul, and I do dissent. I glimpse, in every Coelho exhortation, a hard lacquer of self-regard and New Age snake oil: “No heart has ever suffered when it goes in search of its dream,” he told us in “The Alchemist” (1988). “It’s the simple things in life that are the most extraordinary; only wise men are able to understand them. . . . The secret of life, though, is to fall seven times and to get up eight times.”
Coelho’s soda fountain of wisdom never runs dry. But if it’s true that “when you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it,” then why hasn’t the universe made him a good novelist? His last book, “Adultery” (2014), offered proof positive that the oracular fairy-tale voice of “The Alchemist” is ill-suited to complex grown-ups in modern settings. So it’s perhaps to be expected that his latest effort, “The Spy,” should bridge the gap between reality and fable by making a heroine of Mata Hari, who straddles both realms.
The legend of Margaretha Zelle (her actual name) was already subsuming her actual life by the time a firing squad took her down in 1917. A Greta Garbo film, arriving 14 years later, painted her as a sphinx fatale who brought men to their knees and held Europe in her dominatrix grip. Subsequent research has etched a less glamorous, more sympathetic portrait: a self-created exotic dancer and courtesan who, under the unique transboundary pressures of World War I, became Earth’s least effectual double agent and whose prosecution was nothing less than a PR coup engineered by the French government.
Credit Coelho, then, for giving Mata her belated due and for using the ancient but still sturdy narrative device of the eleventh-hour confession. In “The Spy,” Mata, not knowing she is about to die, pens a long letter to her lawyer, outlining the stations on her road to doom: a semi-privileged upbringing in “conservative, Calvinist Holland,” followed by an abusive marriage to an army officer in the Dutch East Indies, followed by a headlong plunge into the glittering lights of Paris.
Mata reinvents herself. Mata gathers and discards lovers. Mata, in the course of performing Javan dances, drops trou for the aristos. (For those who wonder how that last part worked: “When I got to the sixth veil, I went over to the Shiva statue, simulated an orgasm, and cast myself to the ground while removing the seventh and final veil.”)
Where does she learn to dance? Why does she abandon her daughter to her unstable husband? Why does she lie about her origins? Why does she choose that cockamamie stage name (Indonesian, reportedly, for “eye of the day”)? None of those questions will be answered in this slim volume, which devotes an entire chapter to the contents of Mata’s trunks (“3 waistcoats; 2 long-sleeved jackets; 3 combs”) but leaves out her truly inspired final gesture of blowing a kiss to her executioners.
Coelho does spare a moment or two for contemporary historical figures such as Dreyfus. (“But nowadays they swear the poor guy is innocent, and all because of that damn writer, Zola.”) But his main concern is to retrofit his heroine into a feminist martyr, “an emancipated and independent woman in a world ruled by men . . . fearlessly paying the price she had to pay.”
Unfortunately, the Mata Hari who emerges from these underrealized pages is not fearless but clueless, not emancipated but incoherent — and, finally, no more plausible or interesting for the Coelho aphorisms that keep tumbling off her scented lips: “When we don’t know where life is taking us, we are never lost. . . . Though at the moment I am a prisoner, my spirit remains free. . . . The true sin is living so far removed from absolute harmony.”
You’ll find more agency, sensuality and mystery in just one of Greta Garbo’s spider-lashed gazes. Which is to say that, long before Coelho’s Mata offers her services to the Germans, she has committed the unpardonable treason of being a bore.
Louis Bayard is the author, most recently, of “Lucky Strikes.”
By Paulo Coelho
Knopf. 208 pp. $22