The Spy

Title:                      The Spy

Author:                Paulo Coelho

Coelho, Paulo (2016). The Spy: A Novel. New York: Alfred A. Knopf

LCCN:                    2016034880



  • “A novel of Mata Hari’s final days, as written by the woman herself while accused of espionage” — Provided by publisher.



  • “Originally published in Brazil as A Espiã by TK in 2016” — Verso title page.

Date Updated:  February 13, 2017

Reviewed by Louis Bayard[1]

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.


[1] Louis Bayard, “Paulo Coelho’s ‘Spy’ uncovers the life of Mata Hari,” Washington Post. Downloaded December 2, 2016. Louis Bayard is the author, most recently, of Lucky Strikes.

Red Spy At Night

Title:                      Red Spy At Night

Author:                 Helga Pohl-Wannenmacher

Pohl-Wannenmacher, Helga (1977). Red Spy At Night: A True Story of Espionage And Seduction Behind The Iron Curtain. London: New English Library

LCCN:    78318350

UB271.R92 P64613


Date Posted:      March 27, 2015

Reviewed by George C. Constantinides[1]

The author, a German born in Poland, became a prisoner in Russia and ended up as a captain in the KGB. She defected to the West in West Berlin in 1956 with her son by a Soviet colonel. This purports to be her story, including some six years with the KGB. There are “Perils of Pauline”-Iike episodes and other features that give it an improbable tone and quality. She says she underwent imprisonment in the Soviet Union, near death from freezing, a marriage to a Soviet doctor who was a bigamist, another marriage to a Soviet colonel, and then recruitment into the KGB. Among her claims is that she was forced to undertake a mission to kill someone in Paris but warned the prospective KGB victim; for this she was not punished but protected. Important names, too, are dropped. She claims to have met Soviet leaders like Serov and Shvernik and the sons of Stalin and Beria. There are odd errors; she refers to the KGB by that name as of 1949 when it was so called only beginning in 1954; she speaks of the NWS when she seems to be referring to the NTS. And her description of CIA methods of operating sounds very implausible. No expert authority is known to have expressed any views of the book.

[1] Constantinides, George C. (1983). Intelligence and Espionage: An Analytical Bibliography. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, pp. 376-377

In Defense of Women

Title:                      In Defense of Women

Author:                 H. L. Mencken

Mencken, H. L. (1918, 1931). In Defense of Women. Garden City, N.Y., Garden City Pub. Co.,

LCCN:    32011723

HQ1221 .M25 1931


Date Posted:      November 20, 2014

In Defense of Women is H. L. Mencken’s 1918 book on women and the relationship between the sexes. Some laud the book as progressive while others brand it as reactionary. While Mencken did not champion women’s rights, he described women as wiser in many novel and observable ways, while demeaning average men.

According to Mencken’s biographer, Fred Hobson:

Depending on the position of the reader, he was either a great defender of women’s rights or, as a critic labelled him in 1916, “the greatest misogynist since Schopenhauer”,”the country’s high-priest of woman-haters.” History

The original goal of Defense was to help clarify Mencken’s views on women, garnered from an inconsistent and confusing reputation in newspaper columns, various reviews, and several plays. Along with Marion Bloom and Kay Laurell, Mencken gathered material for his book not from libraries and universities, but from saloons and hotels. The original title for Defense was A Book for Men Only, but other working titles included The Eternal Feminine as well as The Infernal Feminine. Originally published by Philip Goodman in 1918, Mencken released a new edition in 1922 in an attempt to bring the book to a wider audience. This second edition, published by Alfred Knopf, was both much longer and milder.

In general, biographers describe Defense as “ironic”: it was not so much a defense of women as a critique of the relationship between the sexes. Topics covered by the book included “Woman’s Equip-ment,” “Compulsory Marriage,” “The Emancipated Housewife,” and “Women as Martyrs.” Women were gaining rights, according to Mencken—the ability to partake in adultery without lasting public disgrace, the ability to divorce men, and even some escape from the notion of virginity as sacred, which remained as “one of the hollow conventions of Christianity.” Women nonetheless remained restrained by social conventions in many capacities.

Mencken’s love of women was driven in part by the sympathy he had for female literary characters (especially those brought to life by his friend Theodore Dreiser), as well as his almost fanatic love of his mother. Mencken supported women’s rights, even if he had no affection for the suffragist. Although he originally intended to be ironic when he proclaimed that women were the superior gender, many of the qualities he assigned to them were qualities he deeply admired–realism and skepticism among them, but also manipulative skill and a detached view of humankind.

“Women in general seem to me to be appreciably more intelligent than men… a great many of them suffer in silence from the imbecilities of their husbands.”

Mencken praised women, though he believed they should remain in the background of industry and politics. In personal letters especially, Mencken would write that women should appreciate men and do their best to support them. Although Mencken did not intend to demean women, his description of his “ideal scene” with a woman in the 1922 edition was not conventionally progressive:

It is the close of a busy and vexatious day—say half past five or six o’clock of a winter afternoon. I have had a cocktail or two, and am stretched out on a divan in front of a fire, smoking. At the edge of the divan, close enough for me to reach her with my hands, sits a woman not too young, but still good-looking and well dressed—above all, a woman with a soft, low-pitched, agreeable voice. As I snooze she talks—of anything, everything, all the things that women talk of: books, music, the play, men, other women. No politics. No business. No religion. No metaphysics. Nothing challenging and vexatious—but remember, she is intelligent; what she says is clearly expressed… Gradually I fall asleep—but only for an instant… then to sleep again—slowly and charmingly down that slippery hill of dreams. And then awake again, and then asleep again, and so on. I ask you seriously: could anything be more unutterably beautiful?

Mencken often espoused views of politics, religion, and metaphysics that stressed their grotesqueness and absurdity; in this context, escape from the fraud of such somber subjects was welcome to him.

The book was reviewed very well: according to Carl Bode, there were four times as many favorable reviews as unfavorable.

The first edition of the book sold fewer than 900 copies, a disappointing showing. The second edition sold much better, during the more progressive Roaring Twenties.

This book is available for free download at Project Gutenberg e-text of In Defense of Women

This is one of books in The Time Reading Program (TRP) which I read in 1982-83. I found these books to be outstanding. The full list is found at Napoleon’s Russian Campaign.