I’ve long been fascinated by Margaretha Geertruida MacLeod. Better known by her stage name Mata Hari, Margaretha was a Dutch exotic dancer and courtesan who was convicted of being a spy for Germany during World War I, and executed by firing squad in France in 1917.
Now, as introductions go, that’s up there with some (fictional) all-time-greats. Yet Mata Hari was as real as you, me, and that bloke across the road who I can see almost elbow-deep in his pants, scratching his bum with real vigour. And though we claim to know about her multiple identities and life of excess, it’s fair to say that 100 years after her death, she’s still a bit of an enigma.
So who was Mata Hari? Feminist icon? Proto-Bond? Pleasure-seeking sex addict?
In The Untold Story, we meet Margaretha in prison at the end of her life as she writes her memoir; part romantic tale of a Javanese princess who performed erotic dances for Europe’s elite, and part saga of a disgraced wife and mother who had everything she loved taken from her. Yet, as she sits trial in a French prison for treason and espionage, we discover a third story: that of a flamboyant Dutch woman who became the most dangerous German spy France ever captured; a double agent who prostituted herself for secrets, lived a life of scandal, and only ever loved money and sex.
This beautiful graphic novel collects an original five-issue series, but the addition of historical material and an artist’s sketchbook gives the collection added ‘weight’, and also provides a great starting point for anyone wanting to learn more about a fascinating, tragic life. Emma Beeby’s script skips along, spanning multiple timelines identities, but never threatening to lose or confuse the reader. The story, by necessity, changes direction sharply and often, being in turns tragic, erotic, heart-breaking, and always unflinching. The style of Ariela Kristantina’s drawing looks and feels like the sort of art Aubrey Beardsely would have produced if he’d ventured into erotica – a compelling blend of modern and timeless art, elegant but with the dark, sensual energy of the Mata Hari’s world coming to life (and adding some joyfully eroticism to boot). And it’s perfectly paired with Pat Masioni’s palette of rich oranges, sepia and purples; a blend of colours that underline a life of luxury and erotic vibrancy, but work just as well when looking at life’s dirtier, seedier underbelly.
I love a story that stays with me, and this has left me with as many questions as answers. A hundred and two years after Mata Hari’s death, I still wonder whether she was one of the original feminists who enjoyed using men for pleasure…or whether she was the victim, used solely for the gratification of the powerful. Guess we’ll never really know… Bex Ferriday