a media star, just like madonna

‘I read Baltic Souls all the way through’, says the man opposite me on the train from out of the blue. He looks at my book. I hold it up. No, he’s never heard of this one. Mata Hari, written by Jan C. Brokken? And what does the ‘C.’ stand for?

I’m on my way to interview Jan Brokken about Mata Hari, de waarheid achter een legende (‘Mata Hari, the truth behind the legend’), his 1975 debut as an author. After Mata Hari, he dropped the ‘C.’ for Cornelis and since then he’s been Jan Brokken, now one of the most widely read authors in the Netherlands. And a hospitable man too, who invited me to his home in Amsterdam.

The author makes tea. I spill it before I have a chance to take a sip. He sits down and reads from his book, which I’d asked him to do beforehand. He wants to do it right away, he says, before we talk any more, because then I will understand why he was drawn to Mata Hari. And then, looking into the camera (my iPhone), he reads in that beautiful voice of his.

Jan Brokken

Many writers and journalists became interested in Mata Hari because of the myth or because they wanted to uncover the truth. Not him. His boss at the newspaper Trouw asked him to write an article for the Saturday supplement, because there was a man at the door with a suitcase full of French clippings, books and newspapers about Mata Hari. Was Jan was interested? He set to work and four weeks later submitted his article. Then editor Martin Ros from de Arbeiderspers rang him, the spark was finally ignited, and he wrote the book.

In the meantime I dab the seat where I spilt the tea with a towel and ask whether he wanted to tell a different tale with his book.

‘Definitely. You had Sam Waagenaar's book and the Frisian journalist Keikes, but otherwise it was all rubbish with overblown stories about her spying. She was a compulsive liar who was so good at it that the French, the Germans and the British were all convinced she was a spy. She couldn’t remember what she’d told them.’

and what do you think?

‘I’ve never doubted that she spied; it was part of her game. But many have argued that she what she did didn’t really amount to spying. A friend of mine, Wim Statius Muller, once a spy himself, explained that merely passing along information was mostly what the so-called spies did in the First World War did. There wasn’t an Internet, no satellite links. Just relaying the news that an army was marching towards the border meant that you were engaged in espionage. Mata Hari wasn’t sly enough. She was too extroverted, and found herself immensely interesting, so her fate was inevitable in a way.’

‘When I wrote my book in 1975, feminism was at its peak. At that time Mata Hari was seen as a victim of men, a sex object. But she was never the victim; instead, she victimised men. She had to devour them all, and they let her. Nobody escaped her charms.’

if you wrote about her now, would it be a different book?

‘I still agree with everything that’s in there. I haven’t read it for 30 years, until this morning that is, because you were coming to visit. I think she was more of a performer than I gave her credit for – that’s something I would also emphasise more now. I later spoke to a man who came from India. His mother played quatres mains with Mata Hari. In India! I think that’s amazing. She was musically inclined and inspired by music. In the Netherlands we think, ‘”God, Greetje Zelle”, but she was a media star like Madonna, who truly understood the spirit of the times.’

did you start to like her once you began writing the book?

‘Well, I did find her intriguing.’ He laughs. ‘I think if I’d met her, she would have wound me round her little finger within three minutes, just like she did everyone else.’

is there anything you would like to add to it in retrospect?

‘What both Waagenaar and I – and many others – overlooked is that she was tried and sentenced by a military tribunal. Anyone voting against the death penalty would be demoted. That’s something I discovered only later, a few years ago.’

He has to get back to writing. I grab my stuff and he sees me out. Since writing about Mata Hari, he’s now 26 – who knows, maybe 27 – books further down the road.

Jan Brokken is one of the very many writers and journalists who have written a book about Mata Hari. I made a list (probably incomplete) of all of the ones I could trace. If you know of any other titles about her, please let me know at: h.boonstra@friesmuseum.nl.