The Alchemist, written by Paulo Coelho has created history. The response from readers has turned the book into a phenomenon in the history of publishing. From a book that created history, Paulo has reached a stage where he could now think about writing a figure in history. Perhaps, his new book The Spy is an adventure of sorts by the author. It’s a historical fiction.
The Alchemist was a metaphysical fiction about following one’s dream. This book has inspired millions of people, including the writer of this article for venturing big time into the quest for personal fulfilment. More than personal fulfilment, The Alchemist redoubled as a book of magic and mysticism. His other books like The Fifth Mountain, The Witch of Portobello, The Aleph, etc. are also steeped in real-life mysticism and symbolism that strongly takes up the case for parables in the contemporary literature.
Considering style and themes of the backlist of the published novels of Paulo Coelho, one may consider The Spy as an audacious attempt. This book shies away from indulging in mysticism and magic. The realistic attempt to portray the life and death of Mata Hari through a narrative tailored as ‘life-writing’ pays off. The Spy defies the conventions of novel writing set by Paulo Coelho through his earlier works.
I first came across Paulo Coelho when I knew who I was. Only I knew who I was. No one else knew of me. Also, I didn’t have the courage to tell anyone. I was not like them. I was different. I had a dream. My dream looked different from all the dreams I heard my classmates talk about. It seemed madness. Reason would never let me have the courage to accept who I was. Madness was not an option it could put on. However, my feelings were taking me in the opposite direction towards my dream, the madness. As most human beings, I too decided to trust my reason and forget who I was. Not for long, though. Silently, I started following my dream.
My dream was to become a writer. In my place, only people with qualifications got jobs. Only government jobs had the capacity and semiotic weight to even be identified as a profession. Therefore, wishing a life of a writer’s seemed madness. Even when I gave in to my feelings and started working on my “craft” day and night, I was consumed by the inner conviction that I was chasing madly after a mirage.
We had a good library in town. Blessed are the towns with libraries for the young men there wouldn’t turn into alcoholics or drug addicts when life takes a hard toll on them. My blessings came in the form of a story. An old story of a prophet running away from a murderous queen was told in a simple language that I could understand. The story was told in a language that was lyrical too. My life had seemed barren until then. It needed some music. The music of the words I read in that book mesmerized me. That book was titled The Fifth Mountain. It was written by Paulo Coelho.
I decided to trust Courage, which was always there inside of me but was hiding shamefully behind the corridors of Reason.
In 2013, I published my first book, Wall of Colours and Other Stories. And I still continue telling my stories. You just heard one little story of trusting the Courage that lurks inside you, didn’t you?
Needless to say, that with the first encounter with Coelho, I became a fan. This has prevented me from writing a fully evolved review on any of his books. The Spy, however, rewrites my personal history with Paulo and brings out my first even fully evolved book review of one of Paulo’s books. This book carries traits of Coelho. These traits go into the creation of the text. However, The Spy is not limited by his style. Coelho attempts to break away from his style in a way that still holds true to his politics as an author.
Unlike his other books, The Spy begins with a statement that says that the book is based on real events. The book is divided into three parts, a prologue in the beginning of the book and an epilogue at the end. Each part in the book carries a photograph from the real events in the life of Mata Hari.
The real event the book is based on is the execution of Mata Hari. She was accused of being a double agent and a spy who manipulated the powerful and the very dangerous. In Paulo Coelho’s version of the story, Mata Hari is a young woman who seeks adventure to find meaning in her life. An unfair life pushes her to experience hurt and pain without the scope for redemption. From her hometown in Holland, she reaches Paris, the cultural capital of the world during the early twentieth century. The small town of Leeuwarden and the town her family later moved, Leiden, never inspired her. She longed for adventure.
Paris changes her life.
The Spy narrates how Mata Hari’s preferences in life resulted in her imprisonment as a spy by the French.
Published by Vintage publishers, The Spy is translated from Portuguese into English by Zoe Perry. Margaret Jull Costa translated most of the novels and nonfiction by Paulo Coelho. These works had a metaphysical strain in them. I read the English translation of The Spy for writing this review. While reading the work, I felt that perhaps, Margaret Jull Costa in the translator’s chair would have created a different text.