My entire reading life, people seem to have gone out of their ways to sing the praises of Paulo Coehlo. Such a visionary, they say. You NEED to read “The Alchemist.” He’s am-ahh-zing, they say.
But here’s the deal. I did read “The Alchemist.” And it was fine. Good, even, although I didn’t quite get what all the fuss was about. Then I read “The Fifth Mountain.” Meh. And now I’ve read “The Spy” and I’m done. I’m over it. Dobby is a free elf, and she doesn’t care if you know that she doesn’t like Paulo Coelho. I think his work is boring, overly-simplistic and laden with metaphors so heavy they could sink ships.
“The Spy” is a fictionalized account of the (in)famous Mata Hari, an exotic dancer who was accused of being a German spy in World War I and executed by a French firing squad. It takes the form of a letter from Hari to her lawyer days before her execution.
The evidence against her was dubious at best but she she was a foreigner and a divorcee and was unapologetic about sleeping with officers of different nationalities. In life and in death she’s been mythologized, painted as a femme fatale or a feminist icon, synonymous with female sexual betrayal. There have been movies about her, plays about her, and even a ballet. And now Coelho has something to say about her.
And what he has to say isn’t very original. He paints Mata Hari as a liberated and vain woman in pursuit of money and power, even though there is considerable historical evidence that she only did what she did out of desperation. She was a singular figure, but in Coelho’s hands, she’s just another mouthpiece for his dime store philosophy. The book is filled with such insights as “honesty has a way of dissolving lies” and “when we don’t know where life is taking us, we are never lost.”
Here’s the thing-she’s Mata fricken Hari. She’s a notorious woman, a famous enigma. How could she be so boring?! Instead of imbuing his protagonist with a personality, the author is more interested in cutesy cameos. She meets “a man called Freud-I can’t remember his first name.” She also talks to Picasso, “an ugly, wide-eyed impolite man who fancied himself one of the greats.”
It’s ironic that for all Mata Hari has come to represent for women’s liberation and self-expression, all she does in this book is serve as Coelho’s philosophical representative. And it’s infuriating that a woman who was abused by so many (her teacher, her husband, countless unnamed men, her adopted country) is a bystander in her own life story.