Thursday, November 22, 2007

REVIEW: Signed, Mata Hari, by Yannick Murphy

Published: November 2007 by Little, Brown. Click on the cover to buy from your local Booksense-affliliated independent bookseller.

Signed, Mata Hari is a fictionalized account of the life of Margaretha Zelle, better known as the dancer, courtesan and convicted spy Mata Hari. The book follows her entire lifespan, from her childhood to her execution, but focuses on her marriage to Dutch naval officer Rudolph MacLeod and its aftermath. The book alternates her first-person memories and reminiscences with third-person narration as she undergoes questioning in the Saint-Lazare prison in France, trying to convince the prison official that she is innocent of spying for the Germans in World War I.

It was unclear to me whether she was telling her stories to the official or if they were simply memories she recites to herself and the reader. She talks about her difficult childhood, her marriage to the cold and abusive MacLeod, their life in Holland and Indonesia and their two children, Norman and Non. Her story continues with their return to Europe, the dissolution of their marriage and then, very briefly, her career as a dancer and courtesan. Of course this last period of her life is the most crucial to the espionage charges and I found it curious that it was here that the author chose to spend the least time.

The story is fictional but Murphy hems close to the real facts of Mata Hari's life, at least in the broad strokes, as far as I could tell with a cursory Internet search. The problem I find with fictionalized biography is how difficult it can be for the reader to tell the difference between fact and fiction- in cases like this (and also like Loving Frank, which I reviewed earlier on) I find it best to reject the real person entirely and focus on the characters as fictional characters, so it doesn't matter if the real Mata Hari did or said this or that. What matters is the character on the page.

One of the problems I have is that Murphy has Mata Hari focus on what others did to her and answers few questions about what she did, either as a spy or as a woman. She portrays her heroine as something of a self-involved, narcissistic professional victim. I can't decide if I liked her or not. Certainly she suffered a lot and was treated cruelly at times. But then the abuse she endured at the hands of her husband and his sister seemed a little heavy-handed and over the top, and Murphy does little to make Mata Hari likable apart from the pity one might feel. Her husband and sister in law were almost cartoonish in their cruelty and I couldn't help but wonder if she was exaggerating for sympathy- she is pleading for her life after all, and arguing that everything she did as a dancer/courtesan was to regain her family and respectability. But the question remains- was she or was she not a spy? The book bumps along to its inevitable conclusion- like I said, it's true to the real Mata Hari's life in many respects- but we never get a good answer. Of course she claims she's not. But like everything she says, you have to take that with a grain of salt.

Overall I liked the book. I didn't love it, but I liked it. I feel like such a scrooge this year- like I'm not really enjoying much of anything I've read! I found Signed, Mata Hari a little dry and slow-going in places but I did enjoy reading it. Murphy has an unfortunate tendency to too many run-on sentences that were sometimes hard to follow, but also created atmosphere and mood. She evokes Java beautifully and documents the nightmare of Mata Hari's marriage with precision. Many passages are rich with detail and sensuality, and I thought the relationship between Mata Hari and her maid Anna was touching- Anna Lintjens may be the closest thing she ever has to a friend. Her last love affair, with the Russian Vadime, struck me as very naive for a woman of her experience and this episode as much as anything had me questioning the book. I don't know if Mata Hari was deceiving us or if Murphy was trying to portray her as a whore-with-a-heart-of-gold, but it didn't work.

You don't need to know anything about the real Mata Hari to enjoy the book but it probably helps. I know that the time I spent reading a bit about her real life helped me flesh out the book a little, and that's a problem. You should never need additional information to understand a character in a novel- everything should be there on the page. Again, I was confused about the author's motivation. Is it a biography? Is it fiction? Is it what the author imagined this enigmatic woman thought and did? I don't know; either way it's a good story, but I'll bet the real story is better.


FTC Disclosure: I did not receive this book for review.

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