Reviewed by Richard Cliff
Robert Harris’ An Officer and A Spy is a tour de force of historical fiction, an account of what Harris himself has described as, “perhaps the greatest political scandal and miscarriage of justice in history.” The Dreyfus Affair, as it became known, split France in two, dividing families and breaking friendships as well as causing riots in twenty French cities. At times it even appeared that the Third Republic might fall.
Captain Alfred Dreyfus, an Alsatian Jew (and therefore doubly suspect to the French establishment), was accused in 1894 of having passed secret military documents to Germany, court-martialled and sentenced to life imprisonment in solitary confinement on Devil’s Island.
Despite being initially persuaded of Dreyfus’ guilt, Colonel Georges Picquart, a high-flying officer and newly appointed head of the Statistical Section, a secret military intelligence unit, gradually becomes convinced that the evidence against Dreyfus is unsafe and that his conviction was obtained through the perjury of one of his subordiantes. Carrying out his own investigation, he comes to the conclusion that Dreyfus’ crime had actually been committed by a Major Walsin-Esterhazy, a thoroughly disreputable but impeccably French officer.
This change of narrative was emphatically not what the French government wanted to hear. Whereas an Alsatian Jew as a spy would not, according to commonly held establishment prejudices of the time, come as a shock, the revelation of an authentically French spy in the army would have been a matter of huge embarrassment to an army only just regaining public confidence after the disaster of the Franco-Prussian War. Consequently, on bringing his case to his superiors, Picquart is ordered to cover up his findings. Sticking to his guns and refusing to comply, he then enters a Kafkaesque labyrinth in which he is undermined, sidelined, transferred to Tunisia, discredited and, ultimately, framed for forgery as the French military establishment employs the same combination of faked documents and perjured testimony that had been used to convict Dreyfus.
After a fresh investigation, Dreyfus’ conviction was annulled by the French Supreme Court and a new court martial convened. In the face of the evidence, Dreyfus was again found guilty, although his sentence was commuted to ten years’ imprisonment and he subsequently received a presidential pardon. Walsin-Esterhazy for his part was, perversely, acquitted at a court martial and Picquart was dishonourably discharged from the army. Eventually, of course, both Dreyfus and Picquart were to be reinstated in the army and Picqaurt was to become Minister for War in the French Government.
The Dreyfus Affair is, of course, a well-known story and Harris sticks closely to the facts. However, by telling the story from the perspective of Picquart, which allows him to pace the twists and turns of his investigation, Harris has written an incredibly gripping thriller. Picquart himself is no textbook hero, expressing some distinctly anti-Semitic views and being something of a prig (despite having an affair with a married woman). Yet, Harris succeeds in making him a sympathetic character whose failings are more than matched by his conscience and integrity, underscored by Dreyfus himself who, although a relatively minor character in the novel, is notable for his coldness and arrogance. Their characters are well summed up by Picquart at the very end of the book before an awkward meeting of the two:
He is not the kind of man who finds it easy to say thank-you; very well; I am not the sort who finds it easy to be thanked; therefore let us spare ourselves the bathos of the encounter.
Yet, over and above his clever storytelling and artful characterisation, Harris’ hallmark is to explore modern political issues through the eyes of history and he does so to great effect here. The themes of cover-ups by the state, “sexing up” evidence and intelligence agencies operating their own agendas will all be familiar to any student of politics in the last decade or two and, although I would want to overplay any similarities between Picquart and Edward Snowden, he is, nevertheless, a very modern kind of whistleblower. Harris places all this in the context of a rotting and self-serving military establishment, willing to sacrifice any notion of morality and decency in the cause of self-preservation.
I cheerfully confess that, although underwhelmed by The Fear Index, his previous novel, I am an unabashed Robert Harris fan. I found An Officer and A Spy to be a gripping account of an extraordinary episode in French history and a fascinating exploration of the conflict between personal conscience and the abuse of institutional power.
Richard blogs at 2606 Books.
Robert Harris, An Officer and A Spy (Hutchinson, London, 2013), 978-0099580881, Arrow paperback, 624pp.