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.”
Curiously, one character who stays largely outside of the spotlight in An Officer and a Spy is the man at the centre of the furore: Alfred Dreyfus, the Jewish officer who is convicted of spying and sent to Devil’s Island, off South America. “Dreyfus remains an enigma at the heart of the story – and, in a way, the tragedy for Dreyfus is that he doesn’t control his own story,” says Harris. “He’s very stoic. He keeps himself together mentally and physically, but that’s all he can do. His mission, in the book, is simply to survive.”
Without Picquart, Harris adds, there would have been no Dreyfus affair – and it’s he who confronts a series of strikingly contemporary ethical dilemmas. “I don’t know why it’s so hauntingly relevant to the present day. It has to do with the fact that it happened in the 1890s, when you’ve got the mass media for the first time, the telegraph, espionage, the sense of eavesdropping: everything came together to form a very simple version of our own world.
“And then, once you have secret justice – once you have the intelligence agencies allowed to decide the weight and value of evidence – you’re almost bound to get a miscarriage of justice. This is a kind of paradigm for much of what has followed in the 120 years since.”
Harris could hardly have known, when he embarked on writing the novel, that by the time it was published the topic of whistle-blowers would be so prominent in western culture. “I think you could make a case for Picquart being the first great whistle-blower,” he says. “To be a whistle-blower you need access to secrets that you find troubling. You uncover evidence of what you think to be wrongdoing. Your superiors will take no notice. You have no official means of correcting what you see as an injustice, and so you decide to go public.
“But he’s different to Bradley Manning and to Edward Snowden, in that he’s a much more highly placed figure. The youngest colonel in the French army was likely to end up a very senior general. So he was trusted. He knew everything. And he was willing to throw it all away – and turn on his own kind, really.”
Picquart, a man almost completely forgotten by history, is clearly a complex, cultured man – an accomplished pianist who regularly attended concerts in Paris, including the premiere of Debussy’s L’Apres-Midi d’un Faune, which is often cited as the first piece of truly modern music. At the same time, he can’t be said to be totally free of the anti-Semitic sentiments so prevalent in his time.
“I think that makes the story more interesting,” says Harris. “The Hollywood, schmaltzy version would be a man who starts off anti-Semitic, is moved by the nobility of Dreyfus, and determines to free him. But the reality is more interesting than that. Picquart didn’t act out of any great sympathy for Dreyfus. He acted because he believed that what had happened was wrong and that to conceal the wrong would do grave damage to the army.”
It’s no surprise that he has mentioned the movies. Harris’s novels have done well in transferring to screens large and small. Fatherland was made into an HBO TV series in 1994. Archangel was adapted by the BBC in a version that starred Daniel Craig. Enigma, with a screenplay by Tom Stoppard, became a feature starring Dougray Scott and Kate Winslet. The Ghost, with Ewan McGregor and Olivia Williams, was directed by Roman Polanski – and it was a lunchtime conversation with Polanski that gave Harris the impetus to write An Officer and a Spy.
But not even Polanski could guarantee the making of the film version of Pompeii, which, though announced at the Cannes festival in 2007, fell victim to an actors’ strike and has never been resuscitated. Harris has already begun work, with the director, on a screenplay for An Officer and a Spy – snappily entitled D – and the chances for this book are, he says, better than average.
In the more immediate future, there’s good news for fans of Harris’s Cicero trilogy, which began a decade ago with Imperium and continued with Lustrum, published in 2009. “My next printed book will be, God willing, the third part of the Cicero trilogy,” Harris says. “I’ve started work on it, I’m passionate about it and I want to get it finished. I’m sorry it’s taken so long. But, in a way, at least I’ve grown old as Cicero has grown old.”
An Officer and a Spy is published by Hutchinson