Robert Harris: ‘That’s what I most enjoy – to take something real and bring it alive’
No novelist would dare dream up the Dreyfus affair, the spy scandal that engulfed France, but the author of ‘Fatherland’, ‘Enigma’ and ‘Ghost’ effectively tells its story in his new book, ‘An Officer and a Spy’
Robert Harris: trademark approach. Photograph: Geoffrey Swaine/Rex
Front-page news: Alfred Dreyfus in prison on the cover of the Parisian daily newspaper Le Petit Journal. Photograph: Jean-Luc Petit/Gamma-Rapho via Getty
It was the dodgiest of all dossiers. “It’s quite small,” says Robert Harris. “It was written on very flimsy paper – rice paper, or old-style typing paper – so that the ink from one side would show through to the other.”
This inoffensive-sounding document, or bordereau, became a cause celebre across Europe. It was a central piece of evidence in a long-running saga that brought down a government and led to reform at the highest levels of the French army. Above all, it condemned an innocent man to a lengthy incarceration on a remote island off the coast of South America.
An Officer and a Spy, Harris’s new novel, is a retelling of the miscarriage of justice and cover-up known as the Dreyfus affair. This period of European history is a departure for Harris, a former journalist who has written historical novels set in Nazi Germany (Fatherland), wartime Britain (Enigma), ancient Rome (Pompeii and Imperium) and Stalinist Russia (Archangel), as well as romps through the murky moral undergrowth inhabited by hedge-fund managers and Tony Blair’s New Labour.
But from the opening paragraph of An Officer and a Spy the reader can relax as Harris applies his trademark approach of bringing us right into the centre of the action.
“The Dreyfus affair went on for 12 years and came to infiltrate almost every level of French society,” he says. “Historians have mined it ever since, and it has become a great story about French society, anti-Semitism and so on. But beneath this vast academic industry – at the very, very heart of it – is a story of spies that’s very familiar to a modern audience.”
Society affairs, gay liaisons
If the Dreyfus affair didn’t already exist, no novelist would dare to invent it. It’s a tale of heroes and scoundrels. Of documents rescued from rubbish bins and pieced back together. Of society affairs and gay liaisons between German and Italian diplomats. “Really I didn’t have to invent very much at all,” says Harris, who describes how he used, almost verbatim, the “insane testimony” of a so-called handwriting expert named Alphonse Bertillon.
Harris did, however, breathe life into his first-person narrator, Col Georges Picquart. “That’s what I most enjoy doing in fiction,” he says. “To take something that’s real – a collection of facts – and then think about them carefully. I feel like one of those people who’s lowered into a complex of caves with a light in my helmet. Just with this one light, this one point of view, I can explore this vast subterranean world. Bring it alive for myself, and hopefully bring it alive for the reader.”