30 July, 2015

An Officer and a Spy, by Robert Harris. Book review

Arrow 2014. ISBN 978-0-09-958088-1. 610 pages.

Set mainly in France in 1895-1899, this is a retelling in fiction of the infamous Dreyfus Affair, a notorious miscarriage of justice that saw army officer Alfred Dreyfus wrongfully imprisoned on Devil’s Island for crimes he had never committed. All the characters are historical figures.

In Paris, in January 1895, Major Georges Picquart watches as army officer Alfred Dreyfus, convicted in a military court of selling secrets to Germany, is ritually degraded in front of a howling crowd before being sent to life imprisonment in appalling conditions on Devil’s Island. Picquart’s report on the event for the Minister of War results in his promotion to Colonel and appointment as head of the ‘Statistical Section’ – the army’s counter-espionage unit. Picquart does not want the job, but is determined to do it thoroughly. Soon his work shows that there is still a spy in the French army trying to sell classified material to the German embassy. As Picquart follows the threads and gathers more evidence, he discovers proof that Dreyfus was wrongly convicted and the real spy is still at large. But his superiors in the army and the government are far more concerned with covering up their own failings in the original investigation than in correcting a miscarriage of justice, or even the protection of their country’s secrets. If Picquart continues his investigation, the threat is clear – the establishment will close ranks to destroy him as they destroyed Dreyfus.

An Officer and a Spy is a tense psychological thriller. The narrative is consistently gripping as events twist and turn, and the atmosphere of corruption and menace is as all-pervading as the stink from the Paris sewers. At its heart is the dilemma faced by Picquart, a man of integrity who finds that the institution to which he has devoted his life is corrupt at its highest levels. Does he go along with the corruption and lose his self-respect?  Or does he follow his conscience, try to pursue justice, and lose his career, his position in society, his livelihood and his freedom, and perhaps also destroy the lives of people he loves? Many aspects of the Dreyfus Affair have modern parallels, and this gives the novel a powerful feel of immediacy.

An Officer and a Spy follows the historical events of the Dreyfus Affair faithfully. The Author’s Note at the beginning says ‘None of the characters in the pages that follow, even the most minor, is wholly fictional, and almost all of what occurs, at least in some form, actually happened in real life’. Although I had vaguely heard of the Dreyfus Affair before reading An Officer and a Spy, it was mostly in the context of Emile Zola’s famous ‘J’accuse...!’ letter. I had never heard of Georges Picquart before, even though it seems that Picquart was the key figure – Zola’s letter essentially gave a push to a something that Picquart had already begun, and without Picquart’s testimony the truth would never have come to light. I also had not realised the discrepancy between the original offence – the ‘secrets’ for which Dreyfus was wrongly imprisoned in such inhuman conditions were actually rather minor – and the astonishing scale of the cover-up.

An Officer and a Spy does a masterly job of shaping a complex sequence of events and reversals over several years into a coherent narrative whose pace never flags. It is recounted throughout in first-person present tense by Picquart, whose character is key to the whole novel. Picquart as portrayed here is an admirable character, driven not by any particular sentiment or regard for Dreyfus, nor even (at least initially) by any high-flown ideals of truth and justice, but by a steady professional determination to do his job thoroughly and honestly (and later, also by a desire for revenge on the army for their treatment of a woman he cares for). The other characters are deftly drawn with a few bold strokes, so that even though there is not much demographic diversity in the cast – they are almost all middle-aged Frenchmen and most of them are army officers – they emerge as distinct individuals. I am afraid that most of the army does not come out of the novel with much credit (except General Leclerc, provincial commander in North Africa) but being on the wrong side of the narrative does not prevent them being portrayed with sympathy and understanding, particularly Picquart’s adversary Major Henry.

The writing style is clear and unfussy, and the 600-odd pages pass effortlessly. I normally dislike present-tense narratives, but it is a testament to the quality of the writing that after a few pages I had ceased to notice it.

Taut, gripping thriller retelling the Dreyfus Affair, carried by the admirable central character and with a disturbing number of modern parallels.


Rick said...

nor even (at least initially) by any high-flown ideals of truth and justice, but by a steady professional determination to do his job thoroughly and honestly

Which strikes me as both admirable and a major source of the good that is done in the world.

I have only the sketchiest knowledge of the Dreyfus affair, but I have the impression that for much of the French right, and for a long time after, belief in Dreyfus's guilt - or, at any rate, defense of the army and the process that condemned him - become something like a matter of principle. Not something that they were happy to let fall down the memory hole.

Carla said...

Quite so. This novel will give you a painless introduction to the Dreyfus Affair itself, if you're interested. Obviously Harris has had to invent the dialogue and at least interpret the characterisation and motivations, but the actual events seem to have all happened.
It seems to have taken on something of symbolic importance for both sides, presumably reflecting and concentrating pre-existing divisions in French society. Robert Harris mentions this, but I can't remember whether it's in his author's note or in an interview I've read somewhere. I've seen someone argue that the connections run all the way through to the Vichy regime in the second world war.