This sad but beautiful story recounts the life of a deeply misunderstood woman who travels from her childhood home in the wintry Netherlands to the hot, sweaty jungles of Java, then on to Paris, where she is finally incarcerated in the prison of Saint-Lazare. The woman, of course, is the famous dancer and exotic femme fatale Mata Hari, a name once synonymous with spying, espionage, intrigue, and sensuality.
Accused of sedition and considered a traitor to her country, Mata Hari is forced to look upon the stones on the floor of her icy cell in Saint-Lazare as she ponders her fateful trip across the darkness of her life. Kept suffering and isolated from the other women prisoners, the seclusion of her cell drives her mad.
Her only solace is the kindly Sister Leonide, who helps her to find strength in God.
As Mata gets on her knees and prays, she is determined to tell the authorities the truth: although they have accused her of spying for the Germans, all she really wanted to was a pass to go into the war zone to see her Russian lover, Vadime. Thus it his here, in the chilly silence of Mata's cell, that the bulk of Mata's heartrending story is finally unveiled.
Born Margaretha Zelle in 1876 in Leeuwarden, Mata is only thirteen when disaster strikes her family. Her father, Adam Zelle, goes bankrupt as a result of a series of misguided speculations on the stock market, then deserts the family when he tries to recapture his fortune in Amsterdam. Mata's mother, Antje, deeply depressed, becomes physically ill,
dying when Mata is fifteen years old.
When Mata responds to an advertisement in the local paper placed by a friend of Rudolph MacLeod, little does she know how the encounter with him will change her life forever. MacLeod, a thirty-eight-year-old career man in the Dutch military and a heavy drinker, at first appears to be a natural bedfellow to Mata.
Both are outsiders, and both are equally blessed with rebellious and adventurous natures.
Soon after they are married, MacLeod begins to hypnotize Mata with his tales of Java, this unusual and mystifying place that seems to speak to her in her dreams. Buoyed along by the irrepressible urge to escape, she does not hesitate to happily bundle up their first child, Norman, and the family’s possessions for a new beginning in this foreign land about which she has heard so much yet knows so little.
Java is everything Mata imagines and more: exotic, mysterious and sensual. But soon MacLeod's bad temper worsens. He's mean to the servants as well as his wife, and he openly sees native women, warming his blood at night with many of the whores at the local brothels, telling Mata that such a practice is customary in this neck of the woods.
Forced to endure her husband's drunken violence and marital rapes, Mata tries to recall her walks across the cold sand sea to her childhood home of Ameland and gradually comes to the realization that Java is not the new beginning for MacLeod and her that she had dreamed it to be.
Haunted by her need to belong, it comes as no surprise that Mata's tempestuous affair with a local Dutch doctor, who treats her with an uncharacteristic sensual kindness, ultimately ends in tragedy.
Murphy's portrayal of this famous and enigmatic woman is indeed compassionate. Mata is a special gem in an age where women who dared to be unabashedly sexual were automatically branded as unfit for motherhood or family life. A woman who used sex to get her way, she's an unfortunate victim of time and circumstance, of her husband, of society, of the lawyers who take her money in return for false hope, and of the men who continued to court her with such sensual affection
yet ultimately betraying her.
Moving between Mata's tumultuous life in Java and the terrible tragedy of her son Norman's poisoning to her glamorous life in Paris, where working as an exotic dancer to legions of men, Mata fanatically tried to obtain custody of her daughter, the author unspools an unforgettable depiction of a woman trapped in anguish with only her maid and accomplice, Anna Lintjens, as her friend.
Whether or not Mata was guilty of being some absurd German spy with letters and numbers for a name is probably best left up to the reader to decide. Murphy errs on the side of caution, her affairs with the German military men shrouded in enigmatic sensuality.
Perhaps the real tragedy of Mata's life stretches back to a hot August night in Java where she suddenly becomes the evil princess and her maid, Tekul, "the dagger god, come to slay her."
In truth, even as she faces death, Mata never loses sight of this crucial
night and how it was edged in betrayal, and how it reshaped her future.
Regardless of what happened, with the failure of her marriage and the
estrangement of her daughter, it was certainly her resolute spirit and courage,
as well as her capacity to make her way in a world ruled by men and the rigid morality of the time, that allowed her to go on and triumph as a woman and as a dancer.