Monday, October 16, 2017

Centennial of the Execution of Mata Hari

My wife, Grazia, standing in the place where I believe Mata Hari was shot on Oct 15th, 1917, in the Bois de Vincennes, in Paris. This photo was taken yesterday, in the early morning of Oct 15th, 2017, exactly a hundred years after the execution.

As a ceremony, it was a little lonely, as we were only me and my wife, there. Yet, we managed to be there as a small homage to the memory of Mata Hari.

I'll tell you more details in another post, soon.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Mata Hari: The Place Where She Was Killed

As I said in a previous post, many things about Mata Hari will remain forever shrouded in mystery. One is the exact place where she was killed. For sure it was in Paris, more specifically in Vincennes, most likely near the "butte de tir", today called the "Belvedere"

So, yesterday I went to Vincennes find the place; of course, the hill in front of which she was shot is round, so how can we know which side is the right one? I toured around the hill, but I think it is rather clear: it is the North side, the one facing the "rue de Saint Hubert." I can imagine that it was the easiest route to follow for the truck carrying the firing squad, as well as for the car carrying Mata Hari, and the mounted dragoons escorting the whole group. All these details are reported by Emile Massard in his description of the execution, he was one of the few, perhaps the only, witness of the execution who described it in writing. As you see in this Google photo, there is a straight road arriving there.

Today, there is absolutely nothing there to remember not only Mata Hari but the many people who were shot there during the Great War. I suppose that it is the way it has to be. So, I just stayed there for a little while. Then I took a little selfie of me there, it was the only thing I could do. Here it is:

Still a few days to the centennial of the execution, on Sunday 15 October. I wonder if there will be anyone there, in the morning, at 6:30, to remember that day!

Saturday, October 7, 2017

The Ghost of Mata Hari Loves Me!

Look at what I found on a bookstall in Florence! 

Once, people would sell old books, now they give them for free. And if nobody wants them, they throw them away. In this particular case, a book titled "The Dance In front of the Guillotine", with the subtitle "Mata Hari," was left on a table at the entrance of a public garden, together with several other books, all covered with just a flimsy sheet of nylon to protect them from the rain. In practice, they were becoming papier-mache and probably most of them did, except for a few that I saved and I took home with me (maybe for the same reason why you might take home with you a wet kitten found on the street).

This book had the name of "Mata Hari" on the front cover, but I don't know if that was the reason I noted it. In any case, I forgot that it had anything to do with Mata Hari and then, a few days ago, I started reading it without looking at the front cover. I went on for a number of pages, wondering how anyone could write something so devoided of any sense, but yet with some flair. This is typical of these old novels; they are written by professionals who didn't pay much attention to content but knew the tricks to keep the attention of the reader. This one had plenty of sex, blood, duels, intrigue, and plot twists. Guido da Verona was a famous novel hack in Italy during the 1920s and 1930s. Someone described him as "The D'Annunzio of typist and manicure girls." Deservedly, I'd say.

And then, suddenly, at page 146, Mata Hari appears, described as "Comtesse McLeod" (!!). A plot twist that makes no sense, again, and where Mata Hari is described as a bayadere, incongruously accusing the protagonist of having stolen some jewels of her. Then, after a few skirmishes in which she manages to cause the protagonist to strip naked in front of her, she disappears again for the rest of the book. I suppose she will return later on: the novel is in six volumes and this one is just the first of the series. But finding and reading the other five is truly beyond my capabilities.

But never mind the inconsistencies of the plot, the insensate twists, the gratuitous violence; the curious thing is that I was totally unprepared to see the name of Mata Hari appearing as I was reading. And when that happened, it was as if I had seen her ghost suddenly materializing in front of me. It was a little shock that left me almost breathless.

So, maybe the ghost of Mata Hari really loves me since she decided to appear to me in a form, admittedly, a little unusual but still she appeared. After all, the centennial of Mata Hari execution in Paris is approaching, on Oct 15th, Maybe, somewhere in the Elysian fields, her ghost is preparing to travel to the earthly plane to materialize and hover for a while near the Butte de Tir, in the Bois de Vincennes, where she was killed a hundred years ago.

Friday, September 1, 2017

Mata Hari's Last Dance

There are many ways to write a bad historical novel, but perhaps the most effective one is to be careless with the details. And this novel put me off from the first page; when someone asks Margaretha Zelle (Mata Hari) how old she is and she answers "twenty-five". Now, this first chapter is supposed to be taking place in 1904 and Zelle was born in 1876. She was 28, not 25. And there is no evidence that the author had in mind that Mata Hari was trying to appear younger than she was.

Two pages later, Mata Hari says "I learned some Hindi." That's no good, again. Margaretha Zelle never lived in a place where people spoke Hindi. She lived in Malang, a city in the region we call today Indonesia, in the island of Java. And they speak Javanese, there, a completely different language.

Later on, there is mention of Mata Hari dancing with a snake, something that I don't have evidence of having ever been reported by her biographers. We cannot say it is untrue, but it surely rings untrue.

I am sure there are more mistakes like these in the novel, but I am not going to check every page. After the first 10 pages, I just skimmed through the novel to see what it was about. And whatever it was about, it was nothing interesting. I don't know what Ms. Moran had in mind with writing this story, but the Mata Hari she describes just doesn't ring true. The novel never lifts off. For me, it was just boring.

This is a general problem in writing historical novels. It is an exceedingly difficult task and only a few writers succeed. You have to know all the details of the historical period you describe, not so much because your novel will be read by historians, but because consistency is everything in a story. And in a historical novel, even the casual reader is perfectly able to detect inconsistencies when they tend to accumulate because the author didn't do his/her homework.

Then, the difficulty is compounded if the author tries to tell the novel in the first person from the mouth of a known historical character. That's almost impossible, although some exceptionally gifted writers managed to succeed. An example is Marguerite Yourcenar's "Memoirs of Hadrian". But Ms. Moran's memories of Mata Hari, well, very sorry, no.

Friday, August 11, 2017

Where Exactly Was Mata Hari Executed?

Above: a re-enactment of Mata Hari's execution, apparently from a 1922 French movie. The scene seems to be based on the idea that Mata Hari was executed near the small hill called the "butte aux canons," or "butte de tir" in the Park of Vincennes and it may show the actual hill in the park. But there are no photograps or specific descriptions telling us where exactly the execution took place 

As the centennial of Mata Hari's death, Oct 15th, 1917, approaches, we could think that we should do something to remember the killing of an innocent woman. Maybe we should gather where she was shot and place there a small memorial of some kind. But where exactly? As it often happens when dealing with Mata Hari's story, truth always seems to be shrouded in a veil of mysterys. And that's true also for the place of her execution.

One thing we know is that during her trial, Mata Hari had been detained in the prison of St. Lazare, in Paris (and badly mistreated as she was there). On the early morning of Oct 15th, she was taken by car to the place where she was to be shot; somewhere in the military area of Vincennes, near Paris.

This much is known, but from here onward things get muddled. One problem is that we don't have photos of the execution, There is one that is sometimes described as an "actual photo" of the execution and seem to tell us that Mata Hari was shot in an open area. But there is no evidence that it really shows this specific event. Then, the various descriptions of the execution normally mention the "Caponnière," which is normally should be understood as the area between the outer wall and the central tower (the "donjon") of the castle of Vincennes (in English, the corresponding term is "scarp," as opposed to "counterscarp", which is the outside of the wall). That would imply that Mata Hari was executed inside the castle.

Other descriptions mention the "butte aux canons," (or the "butte de tir") a small hill approximately in the center of the park that used to be the emplacement of some artillery pieces. Today, it is called the "Belvedere". There is also the possibility that the term "caponnière" was used generically to indicate the whole area around the castle of Vincennes.

Both possibilities make sense. Most of us probably have no experience with firing squads, but it seems logical that if someone has to be shot, it is best done against some kind of barrier that would stop stray bullets. So, the hill of the "butte aux canons"  would nicely do the job. On the other hand, also the walls of the castle of Vincennes would do the same service.

So, was it the wall or the hill? (the caponnière or the butte?). Perhaps the most detailed description of the execution of Mata Hari is the one by Emile Massard, the commander of the Paris garrison during the Great War, as written in his 1922 book "Female Spies in Paris" ("Espionnes à Paris"). Here goes Massard, translated from French, describing how Mata Hari was taken by car to the site of the execution.

We moved at moderate speed toward the Place de la Nation et la Porte Daumesnil, when, suddenly, we were surrounded, preceded, and followed by some twenty motor cars of journalists. They decided to group together and take the lead of the column to move toward Vincennes. Midway along the avenue, they turned right to move toward the butte de tir. But that was not the way. And the street was closed.
We kept going on the right, to go to the castle. The journalists noted that we were not following them and, as we passed them, I saw them making gestures of disappointment. I understood their state and I was sincerely sorry for them.  (..)
Before leaving for the place of the execution, one always stops at the tower (of the castle of Vincennes). There, one stops for a few minutes to wait for the formation of the escort of dragoons who surround the column.
A car with some reporters had been able to enter the castle with us. I pretended not having seen it. But the commander of the castle noeted it and forced it to turn around. (..)
And there we are, on our way for the last stop. We took hidden paths and the car advanced slowly, strongly bumping. (..)
And there comes the sinister hill. At the foothil, the pole made by a thin tree trunk. 

Now, several details of this story don't make much sense. First of all, the reporters knew that Mata Hari was to be shot at the butte de tir, so they were going there; even "taking the lead" of the column; one car with Mata Hari, another as a spare vehicle. But the reporters are surprised and disappointed when they see the cars turn right and move into the Castle of Vincennes. One of the cars with the reporters manages to follow, but it is turned away by the commander of the garrison.

Later on, according to Massard, the cars with Mata Hari leave the castle again, to move to the "sinister hill." Now, wouldn't the cars with the reporters be still waiting outside the castle? Maybe they had been dispersed by the dragoons, but Massard doesn't tell us anything about that. Besides, if he knew - and he must have known - that the cars would leave the castle again, why does he tell us that he was "sincerely sorry" for the reporters left outside? And why did they made such an effort to get in?

The story would make perfect sense if the execution had been carried out inside the castle, in the caponnière intended as the space between the outer walls and the central tower. That would have a certain logic since the French officers surely wanted to make sure that the death of Mata Hari would generate no sympathy and no pity. So, no photos and no reporters at the execution.

On the other hand, Massard tells us explicitly that Mata Hari was shot at a "sinister hill" which would seem to indicate outside the castle. It is perfectly possible that Massard lies: he lies on almost every page of his book so it wouldn't be surprising that he lies about the place of the execution, too.

Overall, however, I tend to think that it is most likely that Mata Hari was really shot at the butte de tir, if nothing else because we have photographic evidence that other people were shot there. For instance, that's true for Marguerite Francillard, another (pretended) female spy executed on January 10, 1917. The picture on the right is taken from Massard's book and it clearly shows a forested hill that can only be the butte de tir. We also have images of another (maybe) spy, "Bolo Pacha", executed in front of a hill in 1917, most likely the same "butte de tir". So, that was the usual place to shoot people and it is probable that the tradition was not changed for Mata Hari. But, as for many things about Mata Hari, we'll never know the truth for sure.

One interesting point that comes out from Massard's report is that the reporters were prevented from witnessing the execution of Mata Hari or, at least, kept at a considerable distance from the place. So, everything that was written about it comes from second-hand reports. Apparently, some journalists interviewed the people who were present at the execution and the result is some degree of confusion, with some details missing in some reports but appearing in others and some wild legends taking root, such as that she was wearing a "sable coat over nude flesh", a legend reported (and criticized) by Julie Wheelwright in her book "The Fatal Lover" (1992). 

Note also that some journalists were not so shy as to report the event as if they had been there. Below, a text written by Henry Wales, American reporter stationed in Paris at the time of Mata Hari's execution. He never says that he is reporting things that he saw with his very eyes, but he clearly tries to give this impression. And yet, it has to be a second-hand story. Ten years later, the same Henry Wales published a completely invented interview with Charles Lindbergh after he had landed in Paris, on May 27th, 1927. Later, Wales had to confess that it was a fake interview, but it doesn't seem that he ever admitted that his report of Mata Hari's death was fake, too.

And this shows, among other things, that "fake news" is nothing new. 

Henry Wales, International News Service on Oct. 19, 1917,

The party slowly filed out of her cell to the waiting automobile.
The car sped through the heart of the sleeping city. It was scarcely half-past five in the morning and the sun was not yet fully up.
Clear across Paris the car whirled to the Caserne de Vincennes, the barracks of the old fort which the Germans stormed in 1870.
The troops were already drawn up for the execution. The twelve Zouaves, forming the firing squad, stood in line, their rifles at ease. A subofficer stood behind them, sword drawn.
The automobile stopped, and the party descended, Mata Hari last. The party walked straight to the spot, where a little hummock of earth reared itself seven or eight feet high and afforded a background for such bullets as might miss the human target.
As Father Arbaux spoke with the condemned woman, a French officer approached, carrying a white cloth.
'The blindfold,' he whispered to the nuns who stood there and handed it to them.
'Must I wear that?' asked Mata Hari, turning to her lawyer, as her eyes glimpsed the blindfold.
Maitre Clunet turned interrogatively to the French officer.
'If Madame prefers not, it makes no difference,' replied the officer, hurriedly turning away. .
Mata Hari was not bound and she was not blindfolded. She stood gazing steadfastly at her executioners, when the priest, the nuns, and her lawyer stepped away from her.
The officer in command of the firing squad, who had been watching his men like a hawk that none might examine his rifle and try to find out whether he was destined to fire the blank cartridge which was in the breech of one rifle, seemed relieved that the business would soon be over.
A sharp, crackling command and the file of twelve men assumed rigid positions at attention. Another command, and their rifles were at their shoulders; each man gazed down his barrel at the breast of the women which was the target.
She did not move a muscle.
The underofficer in charge had moved to a position where from the corners of their eyes they could see him. His sword was extended in the air.
It dropped. The sun - by this time up - flashed on the burnished blade as it described an arc in falling. Simultaneously the sound of the volley rang out. Flame and a tiny puff of greyish smoke issued from the muzzle of each rifle. Automatically the men dropped their arms.
At the report Mata Hari fell. She did not die as actors and moving picture stars would have us believe that people die when they are shot. She did not throw up her hands nor did she plunge straight forward or straight back.
Instead she seemed to collapse. Slowly, inertly, she settled to her knees, her head up always, and without the slightest change of expression on her face. For the fraction of a second it seemed she tottered there, on her knees, gazing directly at those who had taken her life. Then she fell backward, bending at the waist, with her legs doubled up beneath her. She lay prone, motionless, with her face turned towards the sky.
A non-commissioned officer, who accompanied a lieutenant, drew his revolver from the big, black holster strapped about his waist. Bending over, he placed the muzzle of the revolver almost - but not quite - against the left temple of the spy. He pulled the trigger, and the bullet tore into the brain of the woman.
Mata Hari was surely dead.

Monday, July 17, 2017

A little exercise in the archaeology of literature: "The Petrel" by Marcelle Tinayre

There was a time, a century ago or more, when reading novels was the normal thing: no TV, no Internet, no radio;  a lot of entertainment was done by means of novels and a lot of ideas were passed in that way, too. Of that period, we remember a small number of novels that we define as masterpieces, but there was much more being written and being read. Looking at this "minor" production is a way to perform a sort of an archaeological task.

So, this book by Marcelle Tinayre (1901) appeared in my hands by mere chance and I read it over a summer afternoon: 93 pages (in the Italian translation). As I said, a little exercise in literary archeology for a book that, for us, looks light, even ethereal. Not the kind of book that a modern writer would write but - I can say - one that a modern reader can read.

The story is very simple: the protagonist is a woman, Martha, living in a real place, Château-d'Oléron, a small island on the South-Western coast of France. A simple woman for a simple story. Married to a staunch but not very exciting local doctor, she falls in love with a young Parisian intellectual who visits the island. Their love story produces a child and much repentance on the part of the protagonist who, eventually, stops seeing her lover and doesn't tell anything to her husband. It also includes dramatic descriptions of the local landscape. That's it, more or less.

So, a light story for a light novel, but worth some comments. This is not the work of an amateur. It is the work of a professional writer who completely masters the trade. Marcelle Tinayre has something to say and she knows how to say it. Again, for our modern tastes, her style would appear, well, let's use the term "florid". But we are probably obsessed with a rule that we invented and that states "don't tell, show," as if every narrative text were to be a script for a sitcom. Tinayre doesn't care. She shows a lot but she also tells a lot. The narrative viewpoint is normally focused on the protagonist, Martha, but the author is omniscient and she doesn't shy from telling us what the other characters think while they act in the novel. The result is, as I said, a bit florid but perfectly readable. Tinayre knows how not to exaggerate, she knows how to maintain the narrative flow, she knows how not to lose the reader's interest.

Then, the novel is not just entertaining, it carries a message. Narrative, indeed, is a mirror of the times when it is written and "The Petrel" is no exception to the rule. Tinayre, as many writers of the time, were exploring a concept that had taken a particular importance in their time: that of the infidelity of married women. Of course, that had been the subject of much literature from Sumerian times. But, most of the times, the infidel woman had been the target of scorn and punishment. Even when treated sympathetically, typically the infidel woman had to die at the end of the story (a good example is Dante's "Paolo and Francesca").

Then, there came Flaubert and his "Madame Bovary," a true literary revolution. True, Flaubert's heroine still dies a horrible death, possibly as punishment for her sins. But, clearly, Emma Bovary is not evil, even though she has defects. She is a woman of her times and what she does deserves attention and understanding. It is clear that "The Petrel" is deeply influenced by "Madame Bovary", there are similarities in the plot: both novels tell of a young woman married to a country doctor. And the style of "The Petrel" resonates of Flaubert's, even though less perfect. Finally,  Flaubert's novel is cited in Tinayre's novel, when we are told that Martha's good husband doesn't believe in the existence of women who could be defined with the term "Bovary."

Tynaire's novel came some 50 years after Flaubert's one and it couldn't attain the same notoriety of the precursor of the genre. Yet, as Borges says, human literature is just a single book and every author adds a new chapter to it. In this ongoing effort, Tinayre's chapter is not the least beautiful, rich, and interesting chapter of this big book. And it is an ongoing story of women gaining a space in society that they didn't have before. If long ago a cheating woman was at best possessed by the devil, with the series of stories that started with Flaubert, a lot of things changed. They are still changing and the book keeps being written. And, sometimes, we take a look at a chapter written long ago and forgotten, and we can rediscover it.

Below: Marcelle Tinayre (1870-1948)

Friday, July 7, 2017

Dragon Blade: it takes as much effort to make an ugly movie as to make a beautiful one.

Over the past several years, I have been consistently unable to watch a mainstream action movie for more than a few minutes; all of them being too silly and too predictable for me. So, I thought that the fact that I managed to watch this one all the way to the end makes "Dragon Blade" at least worth a brief comment.

So, the first comment that I can make about this movie is that it takes about the same effort to make an ugly movie as to make a beautiful one. And this one surely took a lot of effort: battles, duels, mass scenes, ornate costumes, all that. The result is as ugly as a movie can be. Slow and unlikely duels, wooden dialogues, silly melodramatic scenes, gratuitous violence, costumes that look like they were borrowed from a cosplay exhibition. What else do you need in a movie to make a movie truly ugly? Yes, make it boring most of the time, and you have it: Dragon Blade.

But there was something in this movie that made it worth watching; a thread that surfaces only at the beginning, to remain hidden but occasionally flashing up during the rest of the movie. It is the different kind of story that characterizes Chinese and American movies. American action movies have the simplest theme you can imagine: good guy finds evil guy and defeats him. Chinese movies have a different theme: good guys organize to fight evil together. So, this movie is a juxtaposition of the American and the Chinese themes: at the beginning you have the Chinese theme of group solidarity that leads to peace and collaboration. It has good moments; naive, sure, but moving, such as when the young boy, Publius, sings something supposed to be the "Roman Hymn" in a sort of Latin. Then, the American theme takes over, the bad guy shows up and the rest of the movie goes trough the rear valve of the bull.

The Chinese movie industry hasn't expressed so far an author equivalent to the Japanese Hayao Miyazaki who has defined a whole century in terms of visual arts. But they might. And, if they do, it will be something to watch, indeed.