Sanjeev Kotnala: Paulo Coelho disappoints in The Spy

18 Sep,2019

By Sanjeev Kotnala


I am a big fan of Paulo Coelho. In fact, two of his books ‘Veronika Decides to die’ and ‘Eleven Minutes’ are in my list of books I wish everyone would read.

I picked up ‘The Spy’ as much for Paulo Coelho as for ‘Mata Hari’(Margarethe Zelle) the Dutch courtesan and her intriguing image of a double agent during World War-1.

I must confess Paulo Coelho has desperately tried telling the story of Mata Hari in his style. It just does not fit in. It does not feel a Paulo Coelho book. It’s like ‘Painted House’ by John Grisham. Not a John Grasim novel.

No one is sure if Mata Hari was a spy. The truth remains buried in some unmarked grave in France. The weak circumstantial evidence produced during her trial could not prove her spying for the enemy. Maybe, France needed a scapegoat, and a well-known figure being executed for spying could have been the most desirable signal to the masses. I have read so many articles on Mata Hari, that when I saw ‘The Spy’, it was natural for me to pick.

The life of a dreamer, the brush with harsh realities, the transformation, the confidence of performance, the differential viewpoint of seeing her own act of courtesan along with the semi confessional letter fits Paulo Coelho style. The other part of the book has her lawyers presenting his version of the failed trial in letters written by him.

There is high self pride, followed by collapsing of self-image and the willingness to stand for values and dreams. Paulo Coelho philosophy and point of views somewhere start sounding repetitive.

At the very start of the book, there is a statement Mata Hari makes which describes and sets the trend for the narration. It is as powerful as any Coelhism.

“At this moment, I look back at my life and realise that memory is a river, one that always runs backwards.”

A few more powerful statements of Coelhism are tucked in between the chapters.

“Everyone flirts with danger, so long as the danger does not really exist.”

“When we don’t know where life is taking us, we are never lost.”

I felt no connection while reading ‘The Spy’. His other works always appealed to the person within, took me on an emotional journey and feelings for the protagonist. One lived the life through their attempts, efforts, failure or success.

‘The Spy’ is flat. It lacks undercurrents that gave Paul Colheo novels an edge and engaged me as a reader.

It is a fictional re-enactment of a lonely person’s life. It is not a biography. It lacks the detail that could hold you on the journey with Mata Hari. It does not add a new dimension to the characters.

There is no Paulo Coelho taste or Mata Hari intrigue even as I finished reading and closed the book.

Yet in between the pages, you do find Paulo Coelho buried in sparsely separated Coelhism. Here is the one that I picked as a good reference.

Mata Hari mother gives her seeds and says

“They’re tulip seeds, the symbol of our country. But, more than that, they represent a truth you must learn. These seeds will always be tulips, even if at the moment you cannot tell them apart from other flowers. They will never turn into roses or sunflowers, no matter how much they might desire to. And if they try to deny their own existence, they will live life bitter and die.”

“So you must learn to follow your destiny, whatever it may be, with joy. As flowers grow, they show off their beauty and are appreciated by all; then, after they die, they leave their seeds so that others may continue God’s work.”

“Flowers teach us nothing is permanent: not their beauty, not even the fact that they will inevitably wilt, because they will still give new seeds. Remember this when you feel joy, pain or sadness. Everything passes, grows old, dies, and is reborn.”

I do think I will sometime in future pick up Femme Fatale: Love, Lies, and the Unknown Life of Mata Hari by Pat Shipman and try bridging the gap.

Paulo Coelho, ‘The SPY’ is an okay read for a fan.

Maybe it will be more liked by readers who are getting introduced to him with this book.


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