Victim or spy, devoted mother or courtesan, princess or base-born, cunning or naive – Mata Hari is a highly controversial figure in many aspects, but I’m certain everyone would agree that she was a fascinating woman.

I first heard about her in my childhood. I remember Granny mentioning her name, and telling me she was a spy who had lived in the beginning of the 20th century. I also got the idea that she was a mysterious character, but over the years I didn’t really read much about her.

Until recently, by coincidence, I became acquainted with her story – or at least with two versions of it. First, I bought a book by the famous Brazilian author Paulo Coelho, called “The spy”. It called my attention precisely because I had never read anything about her. I brought it home and put it on the shelf of the “books to read”, with several others. And then last week they showed a series about her on Portuguese television. I was having dinner with some friends at their beach house on the coast, near Sintra, when casually looking at the television one of my friends remarked “Look, this is a series about Mata Hari filmed on location in Portugal, here in Sintra. And they have Portuguese actors, too”. It called my attention and the following day, at home, I sat back to watch it.

The series portrays her as a beautiful woman, a victim of an abusive husband. One day she cannot bear it anymore and runs away from Java – the West Indies Island where they live – to the Netherlands, her native country. She is portrayed as a loving mother and she works hard to earn a living for herself and her adored daughter. But her husband comes after her and he slanders her, being granted custody of the child. From then on her life is a constant struggle to get her daughter back and she will fight with all the means she finds. She becomes an exotic dancer – apparently she had learned how to perform the Javanese traditional dances – and tries to win custody of her daughter by appealing to the court. But again her powerful husband’s family intervenes and she loses all hope. From then on she will become very cynical and  find a rich and powerful lover who she thinks will help her win her daughter back. But all is not what it seems, and she is caught in a web of deceit and intrigue that will ultimately make her entangle herself in a dangerous spying game in a continent torn by the First World War. By the time she meets the love of her life – an attractive young Russian officer – she is a spy, as she had been working for Germany for some years. Then, when he is seriously wounded in the front, and so that she might visit him, she agrees to spy for the French too and becomes a double agent. In the end both sides want her dead, and finally she is imprisoned by the French and sentenced to death. She is executed by a firing squad that she bravely faces  without a blindfold.

The series is compelling and tells a very romantic story. One cannot help falling in love with this character, this unhappy woman who only wants to be reunited with her daughter and who loses herself because she is denied this basic right. What mother would not sympathise with her! Then her love story with the handsome Russian officer (and the actor – Russian, in fact – is truly handsome!) is so romantic and so tragic…only a heart of stone would not be moved by their tragic fate.

Then I remembered the book by Paulo Coelho and began to read it. It’s very different from the series, much less romantic and more focused on the last years of her life. Still, it is very interesting and adds some information – probably more based on facts – to the story.

I have just ordered another book about from Amazon, as I now feel curious and want to know more. I have looked her up on Wikipedia too – and found there a slightly different story from that of the series, even if the basic facts of her life are there.

I will go on reading about her. At this point I find her story nothing short of fascinating. First of all because she is controversial – and when characters are so, in the end it’s up to you to pass your own judgement and form a portrait inside your head; that’s what I’ll strive to do. For now, I tend to agree with those who say her only fault was that she wanted to be free, that she was a woman far ahead of her time. That she was a fighter, a free spirit, there is no doubt. A strong woman, in a man’s world. A woman who lived her life her own way, either because she wanted to or because she had no choice. But was she really a mother so dedicated that her only purpose in life was to get her daughter back? Was she the enchantress they say? Was she a spy, a double agent who betrayed important war secrets to the Germans? Or was she simply a woman who wanted to love and be loved and was caught in a dangerous game during a time of chaos?

I don’t know for sure, and probably never will. But I will discover more about her. For now, I will keep in my mind the romantic love story full of intrigue portrayed in the series, the beautiful actress playing her, her dashing Russian officer, the exotic dances and, why not…the beautiful palaces, gardens and old streets depicting Paris, the Hague and other cities that are in truth sceneries of my beloved Sintra… a truly romantic and mysterious place if ever was one. The perfect setting for the incredible story of the fascinating Mata Hari.