Book Review of Signed, Mata Hari by Yannick Murphy
Mata Hari is a woman whose story has taken on almost mythic proportions. She was an exotic dancer who became a courtesan to many wealthy and powerful men in Europe, and in 1917, she was executed by a firing squad in France after being convicted of being a spy for the Germans during World War I. History remembers her as a seductress and femme fatale, manipulating men to achieve her own purposes. In Yannick Murphy’s Signed, Mata Hari, she portrays Mata Hari as a much different woman.
Mata Hari was born as Margaretha Zelle in The Netherlands, and her father owned an unsuccessful hat shop. When she was a teenager, her father’s shop went out of business and he walked away from the family.
Her mother died soon after that. She was hired as a teacher when she was 17, even though she had no training and couldn’t control the children. The headmaster was more interested in using Margaretha as his lover, schooling her in the art of sex. When their affair was discovered, she was dismissed and had to go live with her uncle.
Unhappy and unwanted there, she saw a classified ad in a newspaper from a Dutch naval officer named MacLeod looking for a wife. She responded, dreaming of the exotic life that union might entail, and they were married. He was an abusive man, both verbally and physically, usually drinking to excess. Soon they were on their way to Indonesia, where Margaretha dreamed they could start over and build a life together.
In Indonesia, Margaretha found the first place where she felt like she belonged. She assimilated into its culture and came to love its lifestyle and rhythms. She stopped wearing dresses and began wearing sarongs. She ate with her fingers, much to her husband’s disgust, like the natives did. She spoke the language when she could, also against her husband’s orders, and she treated the servants nearly as equals. She also fell in love with the local myths that explained the history and topography of the land. She adopted an Indonesian name, Mata Hari, which means eye of the dawn, or sunrise.
In contrast, her husband didn’t enjoy Indonesia. He felt the natives were savages well below his civilized status, although he was a frequent patron of its brothels. Margaretha gave birth to two children while in Indonesia, a son, Norman, and a daughter, Non. From the moment each child was born, her husband feared for their safety, often sleeping in the children’s room with his gun to protect them from whatever wildlife might stalk in and endanger them.
He was almost manic in his attempts to protect them, firing blindly into the jungle after dark. He also constantly told the children how stupid and useless their mother was, and almost from the moment of each of their births, did his best to move Margaretha farther from their lives so they were dependent on him.
Indonesia is also where Margaretha took her first lovers. She loved dancing, often dancing with other naval officers at official functions. Her beauty and her sensuality drew other men to pursue her, and with her husband’s constant philandering, she acquiesced to their overtures. When tragedy struck, claiming Norman’s life, she convinced her husband to return to Europe. She was hoping they’d move to Paris, but he moved them back to his sister’s house in The Netherlands. She was soon forced to leave the house and was forbidden from ever seeing Non again.
Margaretha retreated to her one passion and skill in an effort to raise money to provide for a life and legal costs for securing the return of her daughter — dancing. Her conversion to Mati Hari became complete. She became the exotic dancer using her beauty and body to drive men to want to possess her, even for a short time.
She took many lovers, men of wealth and power who would send her jewels and pay her living expenses. She performed and traveled all over Europe with lovers in different countries. With the advent of the war, many of the stages where she used to perform were now closed off to her. It’s at this point she was accused of being a spy in her drive to raise more money.
Yannick Murphy has taken an interesting approach to telling this story. Mata Hari’s life story as recounted above, is told in first person, and while it’s read as her story to the reader, she’s really telling it to the French prosecutor, M. Bouchardon, in hopes that he’ll understand she’s not a spy for the Germans and release her from prison.
Interspersed with her telling of the different episodes in her life, is Mata Hari speaking in a second-person voice, relating advice and stories from her prison ordeal. A third-person voice is also added, telling of the various people who tended to Mata Hari while she was in prison; a nun, a doctor, the guard, and her lawyer. This creates the juxtaposition between her adventures in the outside world and the bleakness of her prison life and the interrogations by Bouchardon.
For the most part, this mixture of telling her past with the inevitability of her ultimate demise in prison works well. It’s a bit jarring at first, with it being unclear as to who is telling which parts of the story. Once this is understood and its rhythm is established, it’s an effective way of moving the story forward, despite the reader knowing how it will end.
The best parts of the story, which coincide with the happiest parts of Mata Hari’s life, are the years spent in Indonesia. Yannick Murphy brings the country to life, at times making it exotic and erotic, and other times, it becomes a place of oppression, whether by the heat or the actions of Mata Hari’s husband. This connection between Mata Hari and the island that was her home almost wafts from the page, redolent in the scents of the jungle she’s come to love.
I ate in the middle of the night because it was cooler then. I feasted on passion fruit and jackfruit and mango and jamblang and pineapple and rambutan. I ate naked sitting on the balcony (it was too hot for even a sarong), and I listed to the insects thrum while I reached for a plate of all the fruits cut up on a table beside me. Their juices dripped down my chin, onto my breasts, and onto my belly.
Two or three times, when I was on the balcony late at night, I heard a great big crashing from the trees and then a large thud. It was a gibbon, falling out of its tree in its sleep. It was comical to see the gibbon stand unbalanced after the fall, shaking its head, and I would laugh out loud and the gibbon would turn and send a hurt look in my direction and MacLeod would mumble in his sleep and spread his arms and legs farther out on the eyelet linen so that even if I did want to go back to bed, there would be no room for me.
The unsettling aspect of Mata Hari telling her story is the sense of detachment that comes through. Perhaps it’s because she’s telling the story to Bouchardon in hopes he would understand her better, or perhaps since she’s telling the story in retrospect, she feels a sense of detachment to it under the current circumstances.
It’s perhaps the one weakness of this novel. For a woman who lived what appears to be an exotic life, it lacks passion in Mata Hari’s retelling of it. She never appears to see herself as beautiful or erotic. She never tells about her dancing and how that draws men to want her. Mata Hari only refers to it. This must be the effect that Yannick Murphy is striving to achieve, that of a woman who is as much a victim of circumstance and made poor choices than a woman who controlled every aspect of her life.
It renders Mata Hari almost unintelligent, or perhaps even naive, of the effect her choices might make in her life. At times her behavior works against her own stated self-interests. Even her sexual encounters with different men, often told in explicit detail, are more about their desire for her and the pleasure that brings them, then about her own role or pleasure during the act. She doesn’t pursue the men, they pursue her instead.
This omission of the passionate aspects of Mata Hari’s life is the only drawback to this engrossing novel. Whether Yannick Murphy’s account of Mata Hari’s life in an accurate retelling or not, it’s a story that draws you into a world both foreign and familiar.
Mata Hari’s exploits have been romanticized since her death, but in Signed, Mata Hari, she’s as down to earth as any other woman, living with the consequences of poor choices and misguided mistakes, yet never giving up hope for the love she so desperately wants.
Ultimately, this story of the exotic and erotic becomes tragic, but in the telling of that tragedy, Yannick Murphy gives us the portrait of a woman who wanted to live life to its fullest and paid the ultimate price for trying to do so.
The editor of The Readers Loft, and pursuer of relatively interesting information, Simon has a Masters Degree in Creative Writing and Journalism from the University of Wales, and is a photo-journalist and writer whose written and photographic work has been represented by the AFP news agency and appeared in newspapers across Europe and Asia.