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     Volume 6 Issue 48 | December 14, 2007 |


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Book Review

Signed, Mata Hari

Joan Frank

Search for Mata Hari online, and you'll face a cluster of shrill Web sites. Some offer photographs, confirming the woman's fascinatingly protean features and erotic beauty. (Cheesecake photos contrast painfully with mug shots taken at her arrest - bloated, sad, plain.) From this certain tangle of reportage and rumour about the alleged double-agent, Yannick Murphy has fashioned a third novel, "Signed, Mata Hari," which reads as a fluid, dream-state channeling of that much-guessed-about life.

Margaretha Zelle, 42, awaits trial in a Paris prison in 1917, enduring repeated, hostile interrogations. (The French accused her of spying for the Germans; she insisted she was set up.) Her only visitors are a nun, a world-weary doctor, a callous cell guard, her feeble, ineffective old attorney and her prosecutor, M. Bouchardon.

While waiting (in harsh conditions and failing health), Zelle recalls her life in brief, episodic installments. Though we're informed she is telling her captors these recollections (a lack of quotation marks dulls that impression) in a Scheherazade-like effort to save herself, her memories only harden Bouchardon's resolve to disbelieve and destroy her.

Murphy's first-person sections establish Zelle's voice: complacent, calm, but also given to trance-like run-ons that suggest a child's spacey, headlong nature: "I had heard stories [...] about the mud like quicksand and about the water like a great gray wall when the tide came in and how it could catch you and knock you down and pour into your mouth and drown you so that you couldn't ever return [...]"

The novel's third-person narratives gaze on the lonely prisoner in her cell: "She'd like to have told [Dr. Bizard] everything, but his blue eyes looked as though they knew it already. Instead she danced for him, for his eyes, just to see if the blue would change by the light of her dancing."

And second-person thoughts seem to occur both in Zelle's mind, and also as part of the stories she (exasperatedly) tells: "It helps to be fluent in a number of languages if you want to become a spy. [...] Anything helps if you want to become a spy, because everyone wants to believe you are a spy."

Zelle grew up in a Netherlands town, abandoned early by her father. Her mother died while baking in the kitchen: Young Margaretha concluded that "the kitchen can kill you." Sent to teach school at 17, she was pounced upon by a headmaster who - per Murphy - taught her to value her body. One hears, in Zelle's dizzy pronouncements, the character's strange, self-satisfied singsong: "The thing about children is that I never understood them. [...] It was because their mouths were so small that they could not open them enough to say words I could understand." Murphy has devised a persona who is willful, dreamy, convinced of the validity of her own perceptions, sexually generous, and incorrigibly naive.

It's that naivete, Murphy suggests, which both draws trouble onto Margaretha's head and also helps her withstand it. She marries a sadistic brute, moves to Java with him, has two children, adopts her new name (meaning "eye of dawn, the sunrise"), and in that hothouse lushness endures horrible ordeals - escaping at last to European courtesan life, a brilliant career as an exotic dancer (with a reinvented past), and a brief but bona fide love, who unwittingly causes her entrapment.

The life of the senses coats these pages: textures, smells, flavors, gamelan music, florid sex - some of which, unfortunately, reads as so Penthouse-sublime as to become a bit comic. (It's hard to envision having hot sex while recovering from typhus.) Throughout, Margaretha's dream-state voice floats at a remove. Told by her husband "You're dumber than a child."

"I looked down at my hands and the tops of my feet, which were brown from my day at the shore, and then I sat on the balcony, where a warm perfumed breeze flapped back the hem of my sarong and the warm breeze smelled of lotus, and I knew it was the goddess of the southern seas calling to me from her underwater realm."

The heart of Zelle's tragedy, in Murphy's vision, involves an epiphanic memory of what Zelle considers her true crime. How much of this material is research-derived I can't say; Murphy may simply wish to cast her spirited iconoclast as one who loved, above all, her children. Inevitably, an oppressive hopelessness bears down: Margaretha's beauty and trustful nature enrage a world that can't fully possess, control or explain her to itself.

But press on, reader, and be rewarded: Though Murphy remains true to the grim facts of conclusion, the latter third of Mata Hari's story gathers speed, tension, even pulse-quickening suspense, and we feel for her as we might for a dear, ruinously clueless friend. I found myself rushing through the final pages - to an ending that satisfies, opening out into a kaleidoscopic tribute, at once tender and wise.

This review first appeared in The San Francisco Chronicle.

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