Margaretha Zelle. H-21. Mata Hari. She was the evocative dancer, the prostitute, the spy; she slithers through history, sometimes portrayed on the spotlight, sometimes hides in the footnotes, occasionally overlooked. She became known for her Dance of the Seven Veils, in which she slowly removed all of her clothing for a shocked audience; it was meant to mirror the dances of Bali – where she had lived as a military wife – but in reality, it was partly her own confection.
The moment Mata Hari stepped onto the stage, Mrs. Zelle disappeared, leaving behind her family, her husband, her daughter. It’s hard to know if she ever looked back; it seems that her new life suited her in a way nothing else could. She wanted eyes, she wanted adoration. She wished to emancipate herself as a sensual being; she used sex, used the power of her eyes. As she got older, it waned. She reached again, and she fell. She loved, and she placed herself in the path of her own destruction.
Paulo Coelho put his name in a larger font than the title of the book; this says a lot. The book is flashy and contrives substance, but the subject matter is so cleverly chosen that I forgive him. Mata Hari remains elusive; some people
aren’t even sure that she was a spy: she went down protesting her sentence, so perhaps we should take it at face value – that and all of the shaky evidence against her. More than this, the book is about love, and distrust of affection. A single quote illustrates the whole book, advice to the newly fledged Mata Hari given by a relative stranger, someone who does not appear again in the the story:
“’Never fall in love. Love is a poison. Once you fall in love, you lose control over your life – your heart and mind belong to someone else. Your existence is threatened. You start to do everything to hold on to your loved one and lose all sense of danger. Love, that inexplicable and dangerous thing, sweeps everything you are from the face of the earth and, in its place, leaves only what your beloved wants you to be.’” (Page 63)
Mata Hari follows this advice zealously, until she meets a Russian soldier 20 years her junior; she risks herself by trying to see him, drawing attention to herself. Her extensive travels during wartime sealed her fate. It was perfectly legal for her to move around during the war, considering that she was from the neutral state of Holland, but her flashy, high-profile status and her dealings with both the Germans and the French raised red flags, over and over again. What the book does is motivate Margaretha’s life by the need for and the rejection of love. When she finally embraces it, her empire of dust falls around her: even her Russian lover testifies against her in court.
What the passage does for me is show how the same relationships can be seen in a different light by different people: loss of control can be selflessness; insensibility to danger could be comfort and safety; becoming who your lover wants you to be – in the best circumstances – can be self-actualization. And what is a poison but a drug, one that each of us takes, sometimes without knowing? How many songs have been written about people on a high of love? How many poems, terrible and otherwise?
Mata Hari was destroyed by a toxic relationship to love; she had felt unloved all her life, particularly before becoming a dancer. She had a turbulent childhood, an aborted career as a kindergarten teacher (the headmaster came onto her), and a terribly abusive marriage. Perhaps she was ready to believe that love was just a game, and one best played for money. Perhaps she knew she couldn’t live forever, couldn’t roll the dice indefinitely, and preferred to die young than to age. What point would there be to growing old without a companion, without admirers, and a dwindling supply of money?
If you see this book on the shelf, read the first chapter, look at the photograph, feel it intensely, and return it to the shelf. In my view, it’s the truest part of the book, and the best. It is the terrible, methodical destruction of an already broken person, one whose trust had been broken in all but the awful serenity of death.