death is a dirty business
‘Hey Willem, hello! Hey Willem, how are you? Willem, good to see you!’ I look around me while Tomas Ross and I walk up the stairs at The Bezige Bij, his publisher. Willem? Who is this Willem? Then the penny drops. Tomas Ross is his pseudonym. His real name is Willem Hoogendoorn. In the same way that Mata Hari’s real name was Margreet Zelle.
Nice man, a born raconteur. Give him one sentence and he makes ten, or twenty, or thirty out of it. We’re sitting upstairs. The sounds of Amsterdam waft inside. He’s written more than 72 books in more than 72 years. Kids books, non-fiction and thrillers, and in them he walks a fine line between fact and fiction.
He sees a yellow sticker protruding from De tranen van Mata Hari (Mata Hari’s Tears), the thriller he wrote ten years ago which is being reissued this year. On page 484 of the 600 it comprises I wrote: ‘I lost the thread.’ ‘You’re like my editor. He thinks that there’s too much information too.’ ‘Does Ross actually understand it himself?’ is what I wrote on the Post-It that I stuck to page 530.’ I crumple it up, but ask him the question anyway. ‘Of course,’ he replies cheerfully.
Almost all his books are about real people: Prince Bernhard, Pim Fortuyn, Theo van Gogh, Maxima. But he invents protagonists to make it more exciting. De tranen van Mata Hari swarms with characters who did exist (Queen Wilhelmina, Prince Hendrik, the young Princess Juliana) and some who did not. Murder, betrayal, intrigues, love, disloyalty and of course espionage, it’s got all the right ingredients, and the pace of a bullet train, even if you cannot always stay on track.
In his hands Mata Hari is seductive, sometimes sweet and often crafty. If he could spend an hour with her, what would he want to know? ‘I’d ask her everything. What did you really do, were you actually trained as a spy, did you actually do “it” with Prince Hendrik?’
Prince Bernhard had not yet entered the frame at this point otherwise Ross would have undoubtedly woven him into the tale. ‘My brothers always tell me, give Bernhard a rest. And then I say, but guys, there was only one scoundrel and it was him. Who else should I write about in the Netherlands? Wim Kok? Balkenende?’
Fiction writers can let their imaginations run wild. ‘I can claim whatever I want, but journalists and historians can’t. People sometimes say, “With you we never know where history ends and fiction begins.” I think it’s just a fun way to write history.’
One kilometre away in Amsterdam, Céline Linssen reads selections to me from Duet, the book she wrote about Mata Hari ten years ago. Where Ross actually assigns Mata Hari a role in a complicated plot, Linssen creeps voraciously inside her head and her body.
She describes the three months the flamboyant Mata Hari spent in the ‘dismal, harsh and stinking’ women’s prison in Paris that was run by nuns. ‘She went in a screaming bitch, lashing out at everyone. She left a calm, charming woman, who affectionately said to Sister Léonide, who had taken care of her, ‘You mustn’t cry. You’re going to see a beautiful death.’
She portrayed Léonide as little mouse – the child of a dead prostitute, taken in by the nuns – whose senses were awoken through her interaction with the sensual, humorous and high-spirited Mata Hari. ‘She came to see her as a mother. Mata Hari regarded her, the nun, as the daughter (Non) she abandoned.’
It’s fiction based on facts. In Duet, the last few minutes are not described as a flirtatious exchange: Mata Hari does not blow a kiss towards the firing squad. ‘She tastes horseshit. Mixed with vomit. Dying is a dirty business,’ writes Linssen. When she reads the last chapter aloud at my request, she almost spits out the words. Her eyes shine. ‘This is how it happened for me. What happens to you if you know you’re going to being shot dead? It isn’t beautiful. But this is what French politics did to her. ‘
Something else that makes Duet special is that Céline Linssen wrote it as a film script. Everything was ready for filming – the story, actors, director, locations, Dutch subsidy – everything, that is, except for the French, who failed to deliver the goods. And so the film became a book. A book you can’t put down, one you read twice in a row.
The St. Lazare prison has long since been demolished, but Les Soeurs de Marie Joseph still exists in Fresnes, about 40 kilometres outside Paris. ‘I went to see the Sisters while I was working on my scenario. I will never forget Sister Marie-Paule taking us back to the metro in her Renault 4 late that evening and we suddenly heard a forceful ‘Merde’ when she had to brake for the red traffic light.’
And that from the mouth of a nun.