Mata Hari must be one of the very few women in history whose name has turned into common terminology, as the spy who seduces to gain knowledge. Though as usual, for every feminist cheer, there’s an eye roll for the patriarchy, as the story surrounding this woman who found transcendent fame remains inseparable from the usual fascination with female sexuality. That Mata Hari was a prostitute with a cause, doesn’t really strike much of a blow for women’s empowerment and emancipation. How then, to tell her story in a 21st century way that honors the complexity of the woman without resorting to the creation of a false archetype of strength and agency as so many historical novels do? How to show both the force of the myth that surrounds her and the genuine desperation that created her? Richard Skinner’s novel, The Red Dancer, offers an intriguing strategy by presenting the reader with a mosaic of fictional witness accounts that all have a perspective on Mata Hari without ever solving her enigma.
The novel begins with the placement of a lonely hearts ad in an Amsterdam paper, purporting to come from one MacLeod, a captain in the Dutch army and a notorious womanizer, but really put there as a joke by his mate. The joke, typically, backfires. MacLeod finds himself taking the responses he receives seriously, especially one from a Margaretha Geertruida Zelle (whom he calls Gerda), a pretty, dark-haired woman of great charm and appeal. Macleod knows he’ll be sent out to Indonesia soon and that having a wife would be a good thing. And so they get engaged within six days of meeting, and marry within four months. Then things go horribly wrong. MacLeod is keen on drink and violence, Gerda is a flirt who wants to spend all his money on dresses. They have two children, move to the Dutch East Indies, and drive each other a little bit insane. On their return to Europe, MacLeod deserts Gerda, who heads to Paris and then to Pigalle, the red-light district, recommended to her as a woman with no money and no choices. She finds work as an artist’s model and then as an exotic dancer, a move that will make her name.
From this point on, Mata Hari – self-christened, meaning ‘Eye of the Dawn’ – is in this account as complicit in the myth-making as the journalists and writers who spread over-excited reports of her. Basically, Mata Hari made her name by dancing naked, but coupling it with the notion that her movements were sacred Brahman dances lent a veneer of, well, not respectability exactly, but something more poetic and pure. Colette (who had herself danced strip-teases of a kind on the Parisian stage) watched her with clear, cold eyes, and produced this account:
She hardly danced in the real sense at all. She arrived fairly naked at her recitals, and with graceful movements and downcast eyes shed her clothes, and would then disappear enveloped in her veils… Her skin amber by night, seemed mauve by daylight, but patchy from artificial dyeing. She moved her long, thin and proud body as Paris has never seen one moved before. Paris swallowed her, and raved about her chaste nudity, retelling anecdotes that Mata Hari had uttered about her hot Asiatic past. She was invited everywhere, men fought to pay her way.’
She claimed to have been born in India, to be related to royalty (both Indian and British), to have studied her dances by way of cults and sacred ritual, to have performed before rajahs, all of which was so much nonsense. But her position, both financially and within society, was a precarious one. Her dancing began to receive poor reviews and, as the First World War loomed, Mata Hari was taken on by the Berlin police intelligence services and used her talents the way she always had. It was, in short, another rackety career, with even less security than she had achieved before, and it ended the way these things inevitably will – in front of a firing squad for treason.
It’s a story that changes with the light. In one direction, you can read the masterful ascent of a woman out of poverty and into the annals of history. In another direction you can read the doomed descent of a woman used and abused by men who cared not a jot for her happiness, her health, or her safety. In the middle there’s Gerda herself, whose consciousness we rarely enter in this novel, and who accounts for her actions with only one justification: ‘once she had an impulse, she acted on it quickly.’ Was she a woman of loose morals who believed her own lies? Or a gutsy survivor using the only resource that society cared to place at her disposal – the uncontrollable lust of men? The beautifully written narrative passes through numerous viewpoints, including her bitter husband, the impresario who made her, the journalist who interviews her, her loyal maid, the Russian officer who fell in love with her, the prison doctor, the youngest member of the firing squad. Each account tantalises but cannot solve the mystery.
Interspersed with these fictional accounts are the most divisive feature of the narrative: brief non-fiction chapters that explain and describe an extraordinary hotch-potch of cultural artefacts, including the gamelan (a Javanese musical instrument), lithography, absinthe, the Orient Express and the start of the First World War. It’s an audacious strategy that I think is intended to remind the reader of the inescapable history behind the story, and to anchor the fictional accounts in the relics of the times. They add a real taste of the cultural era to the narrative, and accent the dizzying perspective that moves us rapidly between the carapace of Mata Hari’s myth and the reality of the Belle Epoque. But some readers are going to find themselves uncomfortably jarred out of the story when they appear.
Overall this is a fascinating account of a historical figure whom we all know without knowing about in the least. The Red Dancer refuses to resolve this problem, preferring to magnify it instead, which is perhaps the truest way of approaching the story of woman who worked myth for all it was worth, until it finally destroyed her.