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
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.