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Signed, Mata HariReview - Signed, Mata Hari
A Novel
by Yannick Murphy
Little, Brown, 2007
Review by Tony O'Brien
Feb 5th 2008 (Volume 12, Issue 6)

Late in this fictionalized account of the life of Mata Hari, one of her lovers, Van der Capellen,  is wondering why she has been away from home for so long. Van der Capellen tells Mata Hari's servant that "he was almost beginning to think that Mata Hari hadn't existed at all and that he had made her up." Mata Hari was such an enigmatic character that many others must have had the same experience. Author Yannick Murphy has also made her up, this time in a novel with such close parallels to the real person that one wonders if Murphy, like Van der Capellen, is lost somewhere between the real Mata Hari and the stories that have grown up around her.

The real Mata Hari was a Dutch woman, Margaretha Zelle, who at eighteen married a naval officer and went to live in Indonesia. She had two children by her husband, one of whom died in infancy. She returned to Holland, separated from her husband, and later, as Mata Hari, began life as an exotic dancer. Her life became a whirlwind of performance, both on and off the stage. She developed a persona, a history, and a style that saw her feted throughout Europe, although simultaneously condemned as promiscuous and immoral. When she was arrested as a spy, her many connections in diplomatic quarters probably did more to consign her to her fate than to rescue her. She was imprisoned in Saint-Lazare and in 1917 executed by firing squad.

Murphy's novel sticks closely to the major facts of the accepted history, and around these she weaves an absorbing narrative of intrigue, fantasy and deception. Murphy's Mata Hari is a real person, driven by conflict, desire and love, although also foolishly naïve. She is a believable fictional character, although readers should not expect to come away from this novel any better informed about Mata Hari's historical counterpart. As befits the novelist, Murphy has drawn on imagination rather than only on research, and her story is as compelling for its narrative truth as for any historical accuracy.

Signed, Mata Hari has two beginning points, one in the childhood of Margaretha, the other in the prison cell of Mata Hari. The chapters are brief, and told in first second or third person, providing both Murphy and the reader with a range of perspectives. This is a little unsettling, but easy to get used to, as Murphy works skillfully in each voice. It is possibly a technique that could only work in a novel where we already know the plot, although Murphy manages to sustain both suspense and engagement throughout. A powerful device used throughout the story is Mata Hari's recollection of "walking to Ameland", a childhood experience in which she cheats death, and which provides her with a retreat in the face of adult problems. To walk to Ameland is to look adversity in the face and know that you can survive. The writing is poetically descriptive at times, with accounts of the weather, love scenes, and acute observations of characters. 

In Java, the young Margaretha grows apart from her abusive husband, and earns his abhorrence by adopting native dress and habits. A conflict develops between traditional Dutch values and those of the islands. The smells, colors, and textures of Indonesia are both sensual and seductive by comparison with the austere values of Holland. By contrast, the scenes set in Paris and Holland are drab and severe. Identification with the native way of life leads Mata Hari towards a naïve primitivism which she will later exploit to increase her sexual allure.

I found some of the American English, especially when used to express the words of these European characters, a little jarring at times. When she asks Dr Van Voort if he is in Java because of all the coffee plants on his plantation her replies: "Yes, I guess it is."  And from his hospital bed, her Russian love Vadime pleads: "...can't you find a way to come save me?" Circus director Moliere's "reinvent yourself" also had a late 20th century ring to it, even if the idea does fit with Mata Hari's life.

As events reach their conclusion there are a few coincidences that tie up the plot as well as providing the reader some resolution in terms of key relationships and the lives of minor characters. When her executioners arrive Mata Hari's first concern is "what will I wear?" In death she remains strongwilled, clear-eyed, and unbowed. Signed, Mata Hari is a compelling story, cleverly constructed, and rich in characterization and observation.

© 2008 Tony O'Brien

Tony O'Brien is a short story writer, and lecturer in mental health nursing at the University of Auckland, New Zealand: a.obrien@auckland.ac.nz


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