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Review: An Officer and a Spy, By Robert Harris

In the case of Dreyfus – you couldn’t make it up

On 13 January 1898, the front page of L’Aurore, a French newspaper, was taken up by an open letter from the author Emile Zola to the President of France, Felix Faure. The simple headline, “J’accuse ...!”, became one of the most famous in history.

The letter detailed Zola’s assertions that the convicted spy Captain Alfred Dreyfus was in fact innocent, and that the case against him had been fabricated. The Dreyfus Affair, as it became known, divided France and exposed an ugly vein of anti-Semitism running through French society.  Dreyfus, who would be pardoned in 1898 and then exonerated in 1906, endured three years in the hell-hole that was Devil’s Island, just off the coast of French Guiana in South America, while the real spy was protected by the army he had betrayed.

Robert Harris explores the Dreyfus Affair through Colonel Georges Picquart who, as head of the Statistical Section, a clandestine intelligence unit, gained access to the secret evidence against Dreyfus. Through Picquart’s narration he sets the scene, explaining the complexities of the original case against Dreyfus and the rising feelings of anti-Semitism in France. Harris’s Picquart is an interesting character, a career soldier who finds intelligence work distasteful and longs to return to “real” soldiering.  He witnesses Dreyfus’s public humiliation, as the captain is stripped of his military insignia to shouts of “Death to the Jew”.

With no reason to doubt Dreyfus’s guilt Picquart is nonetheless disturbed by the event. His disquiet increases when he is promoted and takes over the Statistical Section and examines the evidence; evidence that is thin and ambiguous. He sets up his own secret investigation and finds that another man, Major Esterhazy, has been passing low level intelligence to Germany. And so begins Picquart’s Kafkaesque struggle to convince his colleagues and superiors of Dreyfus’s innocence and Esterhazy’s guilt. He soon finds himself in the same position as the man he is trying to help as he is framed by forged documents and perjured testimony.

It is not difficult to see parallels between the Dreyfus Affair and recent events with allegations of “sexed up” intelligence documents and officials refusing to admit they might be wrong. The power that intelligence agencies wield is frighteningly demonstrated as the plot to discredit and imprison Picquart is hatched while the guilty Esterhazy is being protected, all to maintain the fiction of Dreyfus’s guilt.

Harris was inspired to tackle the Dreyfus story by his film director friend Roman Polanski, and at times the novel does read like a film script, with spies chasing spies across fin de siècle Paris and dramatic set pieces in military and civil courts.

For the most part it is a gripping read, except for the period where Picquart is exiled from Paris, which tends to sag. The pace picks up again when the court cases start and the evidence is finally examined in public. What is unexpected is that the star of the tale makes only cameo appearances, the novel being more concerned with the dark machinations of the cabal that implicated Dreyfus.  It is tantalising to speculate on what liberties an author has taken when fictionalising a true story but the facts of the Dreyfus Affair are so incredible that Harris has no need to embellish. He fashions an enthralling frame and lets the astonishing tale unfold.