Fiction centered on historical figures occupies an odd place in the literary landscape. Historical novels are widely accepted, but those that focus on individual personalities are often met with bemusement. I suspect this is principally the result of a larger bias against fiction in favor of non-fiction. Why, one might ask, fictionalize the life of real person when a straightforward biography would serve at least as well?
It’s an argument one would never make about movies, both due to commercial considerations and the obvious differences in what documentaries and biopics are able to accomplish. But there is a growing trend away from this sort of thinking. Though a work of non-fiction, David McCullough’s John Adams, the source material for the current HBO miniseries, makes great use of letters between John and Abigail Adams that were not available to earlier historians. The intimate details they provide about the couple’s marriage, as well as the direct window they allow into the former President’s thoughts, enhance the narrative in a way much non-fiction cannot. In its novelistic impulses, John Adams is the exception that proves the rule.
The adoption of such literary techniques in examining history need not be confined to the 18th century. Even so contemporary a figure as the current President of the United States is given the type of rigorous psychoanalysis generally reserved for a Shakespearean monarch in Jacob Weisberg’s new book, The Bush Tragedy. Say what you will about the relative merits, it is at least true that fiction, along with non-fiction that adopts novelistic traits, is able to do a different type of thing than traditional non-fiction.
Put simply, a novel can get closer to its characters than most history books. One might dismiss its insights as mere conjecture, but that’s beside the point. The ability of fiction to evoke empathy and seek emotional truth transcends mere historical details, and it is these things that Yannick Murphy does so well in her new novel, Signed, Mata Hari.
Beginning in October 1917 with Margaretha Zelle, more commonly known as Mata Hari, awaiting trial for espionage in Paris, Signed, Mata Hari jumps back and forth through time, relating the major events of Mata Hari’s life that led to her being accused of spying for Germany during the First World War. Prior historical knowledge is not necessary, though it certainly helps in navigating the early chapters, which begin in medias res, and eschew standard chronology while embracing alternating narrators.
Awaiting what she imagines will surely be a death sentence, Mata Hari attempts to delay the inevitable, weaving tale after tale in a manner that evokes Scheherazade in One Thousand and One Nights. That readers will be aware of the verdict goes largely without saying, and Murphy wisely doesn’t try to extract any artificial suspense from her heroine’s fate.
Murphy is hardly the first person to fictionalize Mata Hari’s life. One of Greta Garbo’s most famous performances was the title role in the 1931 film Mata Hari, and Marlene Dietrich played a fictional spy based on Mata Hari in Dishonored in the very same year. Indeed, just last year the Indonesian film Sang Penari also depicted parts of Mata Hari’s life, and there were many such depictions in between. What separates Signed, Mata Hari from earlier efforts is not just the level of sympathy with which it approaches its central character, but the sheer artistry on display.
Murphy’s been praised for her lyrical, at times hypnotic prose throughout her career and Signed, Mata Hari doesn’t disappoint. On the very first page, Murphy writes: “Walking to her chambers I whispered proudly in the black folds of their habits. I have walked across the sea. Later my whispers came out as the nuns knelt for Mass, released like cold air once trapped in a cellar, now mixing with their prayers.” She continues in the same vein, both thematically and stylistically, just a few pages later when Mata Hari reflects,
Mother cried at night. There were holes in the walls, large patches where the paint was peeling and the plaster was crumbling. I thought her cries would enter the holes and stay forever in the house, trapped and ricocheting behind our walls. I tried to drown out the cries by pounding out songs on the keys of the piano, but all that happened was the paint peeled even more, the plaster crumbled to the floor and left small white piles like those inside a sand timer, marking hours that could not be turned upside down.
There’s nothing particularly notable about these passages, except in that they’re representative of the larger novel. I flagged many such beautifully rendered paragraphs in the early pages, before realizing that the entire book is this well-written, and opted to save the ink. The dreamlike quality that pervades these passages fits perfectly with the short, impressionistic scenes that comprise the novel. This sort of prose isn’t for everyone, but in the way Murphy uses it, it’s certainly for me. The few times when Signed, Mata Hari falters, it is this sheer technical mastery that compensates.
Signed, Mata Hari’s very premise invites comparisons to The Confessions of Nat Turner, William Styron’s landmark 1967 novel about the infamous slave revolt leader. But any such associations do Murphy a disservice. That her latest cannot compete with Styron’s masterpiece is hardly to its discredit. Due to the very nature of its protagonist, Signed, Mata Hari doesn’t attempt to navigate issues as complex as race in America or historical crimes as contemptible as slavery. What it does do is provide an intimate, sensitive, and perceptive portrait of a oft-maligned historical figure. If the resulting novel is not as accomplished or as memorable as Styron’s, certainly individual scenes and phrases will continue to resonate in its readers’ minds long after they finish the final chapter.
Admirers of Murphy’s earlier work will surely be satisfied, while newcomers may soon find themselves seeking out Here They Come, The Sea of Trees, and Stories in Another Language. They could do far worse.