November 2007 Archives

Book Review: "Signed, Mata Hari"
November 14, 2007 4:44 PM | Posted in:

The latest review copy arrived from the publisher a couple of weeks ago, hand-delivered by special courier, and I tore into the important-looking package with eager anticipation.


The latest review copy arrived from the publisher a couple of weeks ago, deposited on my front porch by the Fed Ex gal's signature sling-ring-and-run maneuver, and after brushing away the dirt and dead leaves, I pulled the zip tab with eager anticipation.

And so we see that the same event can take on a completely different feel depending on the intent of the author.

This same point can be extended to Yannick Murphy's Signed, Mata Hari: A Novel (a book which, by the way, I explicitly did not include on the list when I was asked by the editor at Little, Brown to indicate my preferences for upcoming reviews; nevertheless, I dutifully read it).

One can view the life of Mata Hari as an epic tale of loss and survival, wherein the heroine endures an abusive marriage, suffers the mysterious and heartbreaking loss of her children, brings an Eastern art-form into European respectability, and subverts her moral inclinations in the hopes of eventually restoring relationships with her family. In the end, her spirit triumphs even as her mortal body is defeated.

Or, you could say that Mata Hari married the first guy she could find willing to take her from a dead-end life in the Netherlands, moved with him to Java where they both became known for their blatantly promiscuous behavior, leading to the eventual loss of both children, whereupon she became a world famous courtesan (aka, prostitute) and exotic dancer (aka, stripper), and courted famous men who eventually led her to become a spy for the Germans during WWI, a role for which she was ultimately punished before a French firing squad.

Murphy, of course, took the first road, because that makes for a better -- if not completely interesting - novel. She's taken the admittedly intriguing life of Margaretha Zelle (as she was known before becoming Mata Hari) and filled in many of the gaps in the history with her own imagination. The result is a portrait of a woman who, for however noble her motives might have been, "used what she had to get what she needed." It's not a very original story, after all.

Murphy's prose tends to paragraph-length sentences, more organized than stream-of-consciousness, but still demanding strict reader attention. The book is organized into short chapters that jump to and fro in time, a technique which actually helps the story and will appeal to those of us for whom "Short Attention Span Theatre" was crafted.

On the other hand, this is a book that is marked by sexual explicitness that for some will border on pornographic. I'm not sure how knowing the details of the arrangement of Mata Hari's genitalia with respect to the rest of her anatomy advances the story for the reader. And while the scenes are not inconsistent with the presumed character of the woman, her apparent willingness to bed anything that moves - and some that don't, if you get my drift - doesn't really need to be documented with such repetition. In case I'm being too subtle here, this is not a children's book.

One reviewer began by posing a question: "Do we really need another book about Mata Hari?" The reviewer went on to provide a fairly glowing report, but for me, the answer to that question is, no - not really.

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