An Officer and a Spy, by Robert Harris
This is a weighty tome, running to 608 pages and, ordinarily, I might be deterred by this, but seeing the name of Robert Harris on the cover was all the incentive I needed to convince me to read it, having read a few of his books before now. Also, I was curious to discover how well he would handle a real historical situation, although he is no stranger to setting fiction in different time periods; this book concerns l’Affaire Dreyfus, or The Dreyfus Case, and I had vague recollections of having to apply myself to it in History lessons at school but hitherto, I wouldn’t have been able to present a cogent synopsis of the events that transpired. Given that these events actually happened, Harris’s freedom to create a fictional narrative was necessarily somewhat constrained, but he tells the story from the point of view of a fellow army officer, Marie-Georges Picquart, previously professor of topography at the École Militaire, now deputy to the head of the Third Department of the War Ministry (Operations & Training), who soon after Dreyfus’s conviction becomes promoted to Head of the Second Department, the Statistical Section, otherwise known as Intelligence; this arrangement had been in operation since Napoleon’s time.
Before his public military degradation (an essential part of his punishment, involving the removal of all his regimental uniform decorations & the ceremonial breaking of his sabre, in front of the first military parade of the Paris garrison) Dreyfus allegedly confessed to the captain guarding him that he did indeed pass documents to the Germans, but Picquart decides this is unreliable, which is helpful for him, as he had just given a verbal report to the Minister of War that Dreyfus continued to protest his innocence at the parade, in contravention of normal custom. Alfred Dreyfus, captain of the 14th Artillery Regiment, certified General Staff Officer & probationer of the army’s General Staff, was found guilty of delivering to a foreign power or to its agents in Paris in 1894 a certain number of secret and confidential documents concerning national defence; he was a Jew from Mulhouse, which was in the disputed Alsace Lorraine territory, now part of Germany, following the humiliating defeat by Germany in the 1870 Franco-German war; he also spoke with a slight, but discernible German accent, which was another thing, in addition to being identifiably Jewish, which counted against him. Unfortunately, at that time, institutional anti-Semitism was casually accepted as an attitude by the majority of the population, including Picquart himself.
In addition to the humiliation of the military degradation, Dreyfus’s penalty also included discharge from the army and deportation to a fortified enclosure for life: this was Devil’s Island, 15km from the coast of the penal colony at Cayenne (French Guiana, on the north east coast of South America); the island was reopened especially for Dreyfus, although there were many who called for the death penalty for what they considered to be a heinous crime, particularly in that time of heightened tension between France & Germany. It was once Picquart became established in his position as head of the Second Department that his suspicion begins to grow that Dreyfus has, indeed, been falsely accused, and that a despicable miscarriage of justice has occurred, especially when he learns that secrets are still being passed to the Germans so, albeit somewhat unwillingly at first, he makes it his mission to discover the truth, even if that means that Dreyfus is innocent; unfortunately, in the course of his investigations, he encounters obfuscation, opposition, and outright hostility from his superiors, but also, which proves to be more dangerous, for his career and even, potentially, his life, from his own close colleagues. He suffers many tribulations, threats, and even murder attempts during the course of the narrative, but he proves to be strong enough to survive them all, and the help he receives from a few valued friends, and later associates, a few of whom are as illustrious as the author Victor Hugo, whose publication J’Accuse eventually proves to be powerfully influential, contributes to his eventual success.
This is not to spoil the plot: the story is known, and can easily be researched, but where Harris succeeds is in weaving a plausible narrative for the character of Picquart. Harris himself says at the beginning of the book:
None of the characters in the pages that follow, not even the most minor, is wholly fictional, and almost all of what occurs, at least in some form, actually happened in real life. Naturally, however, in order to turn history into a novel, I have been obliged to simplify, to cut out some figures entirely, to dramatise, and to invent many personal details. In particular, Georges Picquart never wrote a secret account of the Dreyfus affair; nor did he place it in a bank vault in Geneva with instructions that it should remain sealed until a century after his death. But a novelist can imagine otherwise.Robert Harris
I can highly recommend this book, and I don’t think you need to be an aficionado of history to be able to appreciate it: it’s a thumping good story, including a criminal conspiracy (which never seem to go out of fashion!) and it’s always good to be able to read a story which has any sort of resolution, especially a positive one. The paperback I read was published in 2014 by Arrow Books, London [part of the Penguin Random House Group], ISBN 978-0-09958-088-1.