An Officer and a Spy :
by Robert Harris
- Hardcover: 448 pages
- Publisher: Knopf; First Edition edition
(January 28, 2014)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0385349580
reviewed by Donna Scott, Los Angeles
When I first heard that Robert Harris had written an historical novel based on the Dreyfus affair (as the scandal of the 1895 trial and conviction of the French military officer Alfred Dreyfus became known), I was curious as to why a fictional account when there have been so many nonfiction examinations of the case in recent times. I wondered, specifically, what advantage could there be to retelling the story with the author's imagination as an added element?
Harris himself has answered the question as to the "why" he became interested in the project. Film director Roman Polanski had become very interested in the Dreyfus affair and asked him to write a screenplay; Harris decided to work on a book first. They'd collaborated successfully together on the 2010 film, "The Ghost Writer," a political thriller based on Harris' book "The Ghost" about what most agree is arguably a thinly veiled portrayal of Tony Blair and his wife as a ruthless British ex-Prime Minister and wife. Harris, once an avid supporter of Blair, became disenchanted with him when Blair followed George Bush into Iraq.
In the hands of a writer of Harris' abilities, "An Officer and A Spy" turns out to be a great read for readers of historical fiction, spy thrillers and literature. By choosing fiction, Harris gives his readers a keener and more nuanced understanding of the case, its ramifications and its relevancy to today's current events around the world.
For those who are only vaguely familiar with the trial and conviction of Alfred Dreyfus, the many famous French literary and art figures, as well as politicians, caught up in its controversy and ultimate outcome, you truly have a treat in store for you. My own knowledge had been limited to a few of the facts: Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish officer in the French military was convicted of being a spy; anti-Semitism played an important role; an ensuing libel case involving Emile Zola's famous "J'Accuse..." article resulted in Zola's going into exile, fleeing imprisonment in France; and that whatever else surrounded the case was a black mark on the French military and government of that period. Even for those who are well versed in the subject, I would guess most still aren't familiar with the intrigue surrounding the making and ultimate dismantling of his conviction. Harris makes good use of the audacity, carelessness and humorous stupidity of the guilty parties, which is well documented (much of which is available on the internet).
Harris' narrator is Georges Picquart, a career military man who had once been Dreyfus' teacher, to whom the army is "...my heart and soul, my mirror, my ideal." It's at once a wise, ironic and clever choice on Harris' part rather than choosing the more obvious Alfred Dreyfus. Storytelling is at its best when a character is presented with a predicament and takes a journey that will forever change him. Good literature is not only well written, but does this particularly well, imparting the reader with valuable insight to take back into "real" life. In Harris' retelling of the Dreyfus affair, not only does Picquart go through a series of traumatic events that will irrevocably change him down to his very existential self, but so does the country of France as well. And so, it's doubly satisfying for the reader to experience both the personal and world view.
At the start Picquart is convinced of Dreyfus' guilt, and for his loyalty and participation in the trial is rewarded with a promotion to head the counterespionage agency. Without giving any spoilers away (this reads so much as a thriller that to give you too much of the plot will ruin much of the sheer pleasure of the experience), once Picquart begins examining what seems to be a second case of another soldier passing on military secrets to the Germans, he finds himself in the undesirable position of the reluctant whistle-blower.
Picquart now has access to the documents that were kept secret from all but a select few in the government due to their "sensitive content." The trial itself was clearly absent of due process. Sound familiar? This is only the first of many issues involving the Dreyfus affair that will ring true of today's current events: the rights to due process of the detainees at Guantanamo Bay immediately comes to mind.
The complex thread of mounting evidence in favor of Dreyfus' innocence is meticulously laid out. I found the details not boring, but fascinating puzzle pieces, shared with the reader in real-time as Picquart puts them together. His journey results in self-revelations as he grapples with decisions of if—and how—to move forward with the ruinous information about the military and the men he's so honored to serve. The decision of a political whistle-blower requires due consideration to the collateral damage he will cause. Picquart knows that he will cause harm to personal lives and the very institution of France's government and its military. Many are innocents caught up in the wake of the guilty. No matter on which side we fall, we are reminded that even Julian Assange and Edward Snowden had to have faced similar dilemmas as whistle-blowers.
As Picquart doggedly unravels the evidence that sent Dreyfus to Devil's Island, France's move into modernity becomes increasingly threatened. Its world becomes populated by assassination attempts (both of reputation and physical murder), the lurking serpent of anti-Semitism striking the population of France with its venom, a division of opinion within its famous political and artistic citizenry, and a cover-up we could not have imagined had we not recently lived through our own series of outrageous cover-ups. (When reading Picquart's instructions from the higher-up to drop his investigation into the Dreyfus court-martial because, "It would reopen too many wounds...It would tear the country apart," I found myself screaming at the pages, "it's always the cover-up, stupid!)
Harris takes great pains to expose why the environment in France at the time seemed ripe for the rush to judgment and subsequent wrong-doing perpetrated by so many. There was then in France a feeling of fear and paranoia of Germany, after being defeated by them only twenty-five years earlier in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870. Dreyfus, a German-Jew with family ties still in Germany, fed these anti-immigrant sentiments. Such sentiments exist in France and throughout parts of the world today as the ethnicity of countries' citizens undergo massive shifts, threatening the nation's identity. As nationalism feeds upon these growing insecurities, we can only hope there will be enough George Picquarts to stem the tides of injustice that follow.