"Signed, Mata Hari"
(Reviewed by Guy Savage DEC 16, 2007)
“If you read the paper, you can be a spy too. You can tell your German lover something you read in the paper or something your hairdresser told you while you were having your hair dyed, and it will become a secret no one else knew and you are aiding and abetting the enemy. You could vow not to talk to Germans, but that too is suspicious because you always used to talk with them.”
The name Mata Hari has faded into the dark corners of history, and what remains is a fragmented legend of a glamorous woman, a bold dancer who scandalized, and ultimately offended the world. Although Mata Hari was accused of being a spy and summarily executed for the crime in 1917, it remains unclear whether or not she was indeed a spy, whether she was a double agent for both the German and the French, or if she was just a woman whose flagrantly sexual lifestyle offended polite society. There are so many legends and stories about Mata Hari that at times it’s difficult to decipher the truth. This is partly due to Mata Hari’s own reinventions of her background, but it’s also partly due to some of the images presented of her on screen. Last night for example, I watched Up The Front, a British comedy from 1972 that stars Zsa Zsa Gabor as the notorious Mata Hari. In this film version, Mata Hari is seen hanging out at a soiree for British officers, pumping an inept private (comedian Frankie Howerd) for information. For people who don’t know anything about Mata Hari, the myth survives in these largely inaccurate presentations, and consequently, as the legends grow, the real Mata Hari becomes increasingly more elusive as the decades slip away.
Just how to pin down the real Mata Hari presents an enormous challenge for the novelist, but Yannick Murphy’s novel Signed, Mata Hari is a marvelous creation that combines facts with legend, and legend with possibilities. As a result, the novel’s style mirrors its subject, and this is a delicately elusive tale that wisely leaves all judgment out of the narrative. Told at times in the third person, and at times in the first person, the novel weaves elements of Mata Hari’s incredible story back and forth highlighting moments in her mysterious, exotic life while she languishes in the drab, dankness of Saint Lazare prison, and awaits her fate.
Yannick Murphy’s novel follows the facts known about Mata Hari’s life. Born Margaretha Geertruida Zelle, a Dutch citizen, she responds to a newspaper advertisement for a Dutch officer who was seeking a wife, and subsequently she follows her husband, MacLeod to Java. It’s here that the novel credits the beginning of Margaretha Zelle’s amazing transformation into the image of the ultimate femme fatale. With her character, Murphy creates a portrait of a lonely woman struggling to survive in a miserable marriage, and while many of the Dutch disliked Java, Mata Hari is portrayed as a person who thrives in the exotic, lush environment. Donning native costume, she abandons the conformity of her culture. Reinventing herself partly out of necessity, Mata Hari later takes Europe by storm with her outrageous costumes and dance performances.
Mata Hari is presented as a woman who lives outside of societal rules, and this creates a vulnerability that leads to her destruction. At the pinnacle of her success, she was the toast of Europe, and the mistress of millionaires. After leaving the sadistic MacLeod, Mata Hari never rendered her independence to any man, and she remains in many ways a solitary figure, who relied on her maid, Anna Lintjens for support. At times ephemeral and elusive, Mata Hari is portrayed here with a solid core, carved by adversity, and this center is ultimately unassailable and inviolable.
The text wisely does not present an A-Z to Mata Hari’s incredible life, but instead selects moments that define this amazing woman. There are many elements of Mata Hari’s life that remain clouded in mystery, and the author tackles this difficulty nimbly and cleverly by often leaving motives vague and shrouded with possibilities. For example, at one point in the novel, Mata Hari has a wild, passionate affair with Dr. VanVoort in Java. Obviously the motive, if indeed there was one, is a matter of speculation, but the author introduces a deliberate speculation by strategically introducing the word if. Here’s how it’s presented:
“If you want to be a good wife to a bad husband, you sleep with your lover, Dr. VanVoort, one last time and make love on the sand in the dying light while overhead bats as large as foxes fly by.”
Here’s another example:
“If you want to be a spy for the French, you can go to 282 boulevard Saint-Germain in Paris, but you must go first to tell the captain, a bearded man named Ladoux, that you are there because you need a pass to get into a war zone known as Vitell. You are going there because you want to take the waters, because your health is poor. Pat lightly at your chest, as you tell him this.”
Mata Hari’s life, her career, her imprisonment and the trial—all these elements of Mata Hari’s life are revealed with delicate, subtle detail as the author lightly posits fact with possibilities. Signed, Mata Hari is a novel that beautifully meshes its subject with its style. Within these pages, the legend of Mata Hari becomes a testament to a very real woman who tried to survive in a male-dominated world by using her talent, her sexuality, and possibly, just possibly, by spying.
- Amazon readers rating: from 3 reviews
Read a chapter excerpt from Signed, Mata Hari at Hachette Books
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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)
- Stories in Another Language (1987)
- The Sea of Trees (1997)
- Here They Come (March 2006)
- Signed, Mata Hari (November 2007)
- In a Bear's Eye: Stories (February 2008)
- Ahwoooooooo! (June 2006)
- Baby Polar (October 2009)
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- Official website for Yannick Murphy
- Emerging Writers Forum interview with Yannick Murphy
- The New York Times nonfiction story by Yannick Murphy
- The New York Times review of The Sea of Trees
- LAWeekly interview on Here They Come
- PublisherWeekly interview on Here They Come
- Reading Guide for Here They Come
- Read our interview on Signed, Mata Hari
- SF Gate review of Signed, Mata Hari
- LA Times review of Signed, Mata Hari
- ReviewsofBooks review of Signed, Mata Hari
- Critical Mass brief excerpt from In a Bear's Eye
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About the Author:
Yannick Murphy has taught at NYU, Ohio’s Oberlin College, the University of Southern California and UCLA.
Yannick is a recipient of the Whiting Writer’s Award, a grant from the National Endowment of the Arts, a MacDowell Artists' Colony fellowship and a Chesterfield Film Project Fellow, awarded in conjunction with Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment. Her short fiction has been published in The Quarterly, Epoch, The Antioch Review, AGNI, McSweeney’s and The Malahat Review, among others, and her non-fiction has been published in the New York Times Magazine. Her story IN A BEAR'S EYE was recently published in the 2007 O'Henry Prize Stories.
She recently moved from California to Vermont with her husband, who is a horse doctor, and their three children.