Books: The punishment fits the crime. Allegedly

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The Independent Culture
I, Dreyfus

by Bernice Rubens Little, Brown pounds 16.99

Last year France remembered the Dreyfus Affair. She did so in a mild-mannered way, with small exhibitions and muted editorials, as if the country was still suffering the shame imposed by the burden of a hundred years of guilt. For 1998 marked the centenary of the publication of Emile Zola's famous manifesto, J'Accuse, which began the slow process of appeal against the life imprisonment of Captain Alfred Dreyfus, tried and incarcerated on Devil's Island for allegedly attempting to sell military secrets to the Germans.

The Dreyfus Affair ripped apart the French society of the Third Republic at its seams. Dreyfus was innocent of all the charges against him, but he was also Jewish, and the drawing up of sides - Dreyfusard or anti-Dreyfusist - among the intellectuals, the Army, the Catholic Church, and the politicians, brought rising to the surface the ugly scum of centuries of French anti- Semitism. Dreyfus was a scapegoat, and though he was eventually acquitted and his innocence established, the Case constituted an ominous chapter in the history of European Jewry, half a century before the Nazi Holocaust. And as a terrible sequel to the history of the Affair, Alfred Dreyfus's favourite grandchild, Madeleine, a member of the Resistance, perished at Auschwitz.

Bernice Rubens's new novel is concerned with what she calls "the Dreyfus syndrome" and with the fictional example of another Jewish victim of hatred and conspiracy. Although she disclaims at the outset any attempt to update the Dreyfus story, her characters and situations, set in Nineties Britain, bear obvious resemblance to their historical counterparts. Her central figure is a latter-day Alfred Dreyfus, a distinguished headmaster and educationalist, who is found guilty of a heinous crime. Protesting his innocence, he is sent to Wandsworth Prison where he starts to write a book about his betrayal, and in the process he confronts his lifelong disavowal of his Jewish heritage. Meanwhile his brother Matthew - like the original Mathieu Dreyfus - together with Sam Temple, Dreyfus's literary agent who fulfils a sort of Zola role, reveal the web of conspiracy that has made the Dreyfus name so universally reviled.

Bernice Rubens has long made the predicament and persecution of the modern Jew an important theme in her fiction; and she has also dealt more generally with the marginalisation of the individual. Thirty years ago, in The Elected Member (which was the winner of the 1970 Booker Prize), Rubens portrayed Norman Zweck as a scapegoat in a family of Jewish traditionalists, who comes to believe that he is the object of betrayal by his own family, and that in accepting this role he has taken upon himself the entire suffering of the Jewish people. touches on these themes in a gentler way (indeed, one of the surprises of the novel is that despair, and not anger, is its prevalent tone), and also enlarges upon the question of Jewish assimilation in countries of adoption: should Jews seek to emphasise their identity, or melt inconspicuously into the whole?

is at its best and most convincing in its chapters of confessional autobiography which alternate with a third-person narrative in which the action of the plot is carried forward. Through these Rubens creates a sympathetic protagonist whose paranoia about the discovery of his Jewish roots is subsequently seen to be wholly justified in the light of the forces of right-wing extremism, which combine to destroy him. The problem is that in the last third of the novel credibility takes a tumble when Dreyfus's alleged crime is revealed. The plotting here is crude, and the book's denouement feels rushed and unsatisfying. This is a pity because Rubens has undoubtedly found a subject, which might have allowed her to scale the heights of her finest fiction. As it is, is an enticing read which falls short as a modern-day parable of man's inhumanity to man.