Thrill of history: Robert Harris retells the Dreyfus affair
The ‘Fatherland’ author’s dramatisation of the French spy case is a timely warning against religious bigotry and groupthink
Robert Harris’s latest novel opens in 1895 with an account of the “degradation” of Maj Alfred Dreyfus. Found guilty of selling state secrets to Germany, the mortal enemy of France since the crushing defeat in the Franco-Prussian war of 1870, Dreyfus is humiliated in a public ceremony in which he is paraded before his peers, physically stripped of his rank, and deported to Devil’s Island, 6,500km away, there to serve out his sentence in what amounts to solitary confinement.
It’s a dramatic act, in both senses of the word. Dreyfus’s treatment serves as a grotesque pantomime for the masses. “The Romans fed Christians to the lions,” a bystander observes, “we feed them Jews. That is progress, I suppose.”
Anti-Semitism is rife in 1890s France, and the fact that Dreyfus was a Jew made him not only suspect but guilty before his trial even began. Equally important in terms of Harris’s narrative, however, is the paranoia that grips the upper echelons of the French army.
Still traumatised by the war, defensive to the point of paralysis, the French generals require a swift and clear-cut resolution to the “Dreyfus affair”.
Dreyfus is not the “officer and spy” of the novel’s title, however. Maj Georges Picquart serves in the third department of the French war ministry, a decorated soldier who specialises in topography. As a boy he survived the German bombardment of Strasbourg during the Franco-Prussian War; with his family he moved from German-occupied Alsace to Paris, joined the army to escape poverty, and grew up with the army as his father.
“No son,” Picquart tell us, “strove harder to please a demanding papa.” A rock-solid establishment figure, Picquart is rewarded for his part in the entrapment of Dreyfus with a promotion to colonel and a position heading the “statistical agency” – in reality, the French army’s intelligence section.
A cultured man who spends his spare time reading novels by Dostoevsky and Tolstoy and attending concerts by Debussy and Casals, Picquart considers himself ill suited to the lying, cheating and spying of intelligence-gathering. Here he is being a little too generous on his own behalf, as Picquart has for many years been having an affair with Pauline Monnier, the wife of his good friend – although Picquart, being a true son of France, would rubbish as bourgeois thinking any suggestion that his affair is immoral.
It’s at this point in the story that Harris’s fictional retelling of the Dreyfus affair begins in earnest. Convinced that Dreyfus is guilty, Picquart is shocked to discover anomalies in the secret file used to convict him.
The logic is inescapable: if Dreyfus is innocent, the real traitor remains at large, and is very probably still selling state secrets. Thus Picquart goes to war against the defenders of his own country, determined to expose their cover-up in order to preserve the integrity of the French army.
An Officer and A Spy is a sprawling historical thriller very much in the mould of Harris’s Fatherland (1992), Enigma (1995) and Archangel (1998).
Constrained by the historical facts, and aware that most readers will know how the Dreyfus affair concluded – the author doesn’t avail of the “alternative history” narrative he pursued in Fatherland, for example – Harris uses a first-person, present-tense narrative voice that makes Picquart’s account of his investigation a claustrophobically gripping tale.
None of the characters involved, Harris tells us in his author’s note, are “wholly fictional”, but Picquart himself is a novelist’s dream, a charismatically complex man who is utterly immoral in his private life yet sees no hypocrisy in demanding the highest professional standards from his fellow officers, the politicians who govern France and the people they represent.
What is particularly fascinating is the way Harris charts Picquart’s growing self-awareness as a spy and a patriot in literary terms, particularly in Picquart’s interweaving of “high” and “low” literature and his growing understanding of the power of narrative with mass appeal.
Early in the story Picquart sets aside Émile Zola’s new novel because “its subject, the Roman Catholic Church, bores me, and it also runs to seven hundred and fifty pages. I am willing to accept such prolixity from Tolstoy but not from Zola.”
Much later, handing a folder of damning evidence to his lawyer, Picquart is aware that his lawyer “considers it melodramatic, the sort of device one might encounter in a railway ‘thriller’. I would have felt the same until a year ago. Now I have come to see that thrillers may sometimes contain more truths than all Monsieur Zola’s social realism put together.”
Shortly afterwards, and now a committed “Dreyfusard” along with Zola, Picquart tells the novelist that “somehow this affair must be taken out of the jurisdiction of the military and elevated to a higher plane – the details need to be assembled into a coherent narrative . . . Reality must be transformed into a work of art, if you will.”
Zola, of course, subsequently published his famous J’Accuse on the front page of the newspaper L’Aurore, an open letter to the French president alleging the obstruction of justice in the highest ranks of the French army.
Harris similarly avails of mass-market appeal to tell his story. An Officer and A Spy is written in elegant prose reminiscent of the 19th-century historical novel, but its form is a hybrid of the contemporary thriller, the spy novel and the courtroom drama.
It is persuasive and engaging on all of these levels, while providing a unique and fresh reading of the Dreyfus affair. It’s also timely, serving as a warning against religious bigotry and groupthink, and the massaging of intelligence information in order to produce a predetermined result.
An Officer and a Spy by Robert Harris, Hutchinson, 479pp, £18.75
Declan Burke’s next novel, Crime Always Pays, is due out from Severn House in 2014.