Reviewed by Karen Long
Cleveland Plain Dealer
"I cheated death."
So begins the sensual, accomplished novel, Signed, Mata Hari, and so this historical figure did. Ninety years after the French executed her as a World War I spy, the exotic dancer haunts popular culture, high and low. Her name graces a chain of supermarkets in Indonesia, and her story blurs into the Greta Garbo film. She is echoed in Madonna's continual reinvention of herself, a style that Mata Hari pioneered.
Writer Yannick Murphy returns to this oft-told story and makes it new, as Ezra Pound instructed. Her Mata Hari begins as a Dutch girl, Margaretha Zelle, who cheats death by walking out to the island of Ameland, off the coast of the Netherlands, and returning safely ahead of the dangerous, rising tide.
This episode becomes a foundational reverie for the central character, and she retreats into it frequently as she navigates her celebrated, harrowing life, right up to the moment a firing squad kills her in 1917 at the age of 42.
Murphy begins with the sea and then shifts to the prison cell in Paris. Through 91 short, impressionist sections, we move along Mata Hari's recollections, intercut with scenes from the final months of her life. The technique has the effect of shrinking the distance between reader and subject, of letting the story's beginnings comment sharply upon the end.
The Mata Hari on these pages is as sensual as her bare feet on the straw mats of Java, as embodied as the sweat on the back of her knees. She is superstitious, enigmatic and sympathetic, porous to stories, childlike at times, cunning at others.
In the margins, we see her effect on men: the guard who must take her elbow, the prison doctor who suggests she will feel better if she dances for him, the lawyer who sniffs at her handkerchief. She is consumable. Unclaimed at death, her body is renamed Justine by a medical student who brags about how quickly he skinned it.
At 18, the real Margaretha Zelle answered the newspaper ad of a Dutch naval officer looking for a wife. He married her six days later, fathered her son and daughter, took her to Java, swilled alcohol and beat her. The little boy died. All these events unspool in the novel naturalistically, almost inevitably.
Mata Hari is Malay for "Eye of the Sun." In a brief section called "A Stew," we witness a woman at a steep marital disadvantage managing to get her way on returning to Europe. Murphy packs more grace and vision into these six paragraphs than most novelists manage to put into an entire book. It is poetry.
In her cell, Mata Hari vainly saves the dregs of her coffee to use as a makeshift mirror, the better to comb her hair. At the short trial, those deciding her fate are "a roomful of old men she had to wade through, their spectacles sitting on the bridges of their noses, their graying hair matted with sweat dropping at their temples, their cheeks starred, asterisked with small broken lines of blood vessels, and their eyes dull with passing clouds seen in them, the weather of the old."
Such provocative writing rings with the merits of fiction. As it happens, Pat Shipman's sympathetic new biography, Femme Fatale, arrived just three months ago. The book calls into question Mata Hari's conviction on spying. Signed, Mata Hari does too, sticking close to the facts of her life.
Her treason trial was embedded in female sexuality, a turf bitterly contested throughout human history. Yannick Murphy, in her fourth book, lets the reader think about seducing and being seduced anew.
Signed, Mata Hari takes a few missteps -- the author's injection of herself into the final paragraph is the gravest -- but this is a work of artistry. Readers will enjoy the dance.
Long is book editor of The Plain Dealer.
Books mentioned in this post