I'll confess. Before reading THE RED DANCER, all I knew about Mata
Hari was that she was a World War I era spy, a stripper of vaguely
Asian extraction. Even after teaching high school history for 10
years, all I could conjure about her was some sort of dancing with
veils. That, and her name is occasionally an answer to a crossword
puzzle clue. (Dutch Courtesan, 8 letters.) The odd thing is, after
reading this fictionalized biography by British writer Richard
Skinner, I only know a little bit more.
Admittedly, few facts about the life of the Dutch dancer are
written in stone. Born Margaretha Zelle and known as Gerda, she
marries a much older Army officer in 1896, hoping to escape a life
of poverty. They, along with a young son, are soon posted to
colonial Indonesia, although Gerda has difficulty adjusting to the
confines of matrimony, flirting with young officers and running up
hefty bills at local shops. The son's death, the birth of a
daughter, and an ill-timed rendezvous with a young lieutenant all
contribute to the family's return to Europe. Since the reader knows
from the beginning that this is a fictionalized history, or perhaps
a more apt description would be a historicalized fiction, Skinner
might have given more insight into Gerda's behavior. Even highly
speculative insight could be helpful. Instead, Skinner chooses to
tell her story by using multiple narrators, a technique that was
highly successful in Matthew Kneale's novel, ENGLISH PASSENGERS.
There, over 20 different voices tell the story of the colonization
of Tasmania. The structure, along with fictional "historic
documents" lends richness to the very complex story. Here, it
results in a story that is really around the main character, rather
than about her.
After deserting her husband and daughter, Gerda travels to Paris
and reinvents herself as Mata Hari, the daughter of an Indian
princess. Or a Javanese princess. Or the love child of King Edward.
It doesn't seem to matter to European theatergoers, who flock to
her performances, although one wonders how successful she would
have been had she kept her clothes on. Some say the emperor has no
clothes, literally, and Skinner provides a cross-section of
fictional reviews of her "art." Says one writer for the
Daily Mail, "It was a tropical plant in all its freshness,
transplanted to a Northern soil. The Parisians who witnessed the
performance were struck with the unconscious art of the dancer..."
We also hear from a 1906 German review, "I would have to lie if I
were to say that the performance is more than that of an amateur."
It is in Berlin, Skinner maintains, that Mata Hari began spying for
the Germans, although historical records differ on when, and even
if, she engaged in espionage.
When she takes up spying, the plot advances quickly. She performs
across Europe in the days before World War I, moving in the
theaters and bedrooms of the rich and powerful, gaining information
about industrialization and troop movements. Skinner never
glamorizes her occupation, being careful to show the consequences
of her actions, particularly in one moving section involving two
young British officers loose in Paris. Throughout the novel,
he intersperses brief essays on different historic subjects ranging
from the Orient Express to the production of absinthe to West
African "juju." The essays are interesting, albeit slightly
distracting. He does work hard to create a little bit of sympathy
for Mata Hari when she reaches the end of her career. She seems to
meet the love of her life, a young Russian pilot, whom she plans to
marry once the war ends. Although of course, he could be just
another in a long string of men to whom she attaches herself,
forcing the reader to again question the veracity of the main
character. What is never in question, however, is Mata Hari's
capture and eventual execution by the French in 1917. Even then,
Skinner chooses other characters as narrators. A kindly nun and a
young member of the firing squad tell her final story.
In THE RED DANCER, Skinner does little to clear up the layers of
mystery surrounding the life of Mata Hari. She probably would have
liked it that way.
Reviewed by Shannon Bloomstran (firstname.lastname@example.org) on January 23, 2011