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’
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.