Hutchinson £18.99

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.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Chocolat author Joanne Harris has spoken about the financial struggles most authors face

books
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from How To Train Your Dragon 2

Review: Imaginative storytelling returns with vigour

film
Arts and Entertainment
Josh Hutcherson, Donald Sutherland and Jena Malone in Mockinjay: Part 1

film
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Characters in the new series are based on real people, say its creators, unlike Arya and Clegane the Dog in ‘Game of Thrones’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
A waxwork of Jane Austen has been unveiled at The Jane Austen Centre in Bath

books
Arts and Entertainment
Britney Spears has been caught singing without Auto-Tune

music
Arts and Entertainment
Unless films such as Guardians of the Galaxy, pictured, can buck the trend, this summer could be the first in 13 years that not a single Hollywood blockbuster takes $300m

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has her magic LSD brain stolen in this crazy video produced with The Flaming Lips

music
Arts and Entertainment
Gay icons: Sesame Street's Bert (right) and Ernie

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Singer Robin Thicke and actress Paula Patton

music
Arts and Entertainment
The new film will be shot in the same studios as the Harry Potter films

books
Arts and Entertainment
Duncan Bannatyne left school at 15 and was still penniless at 29

Bannatyne leaves Dragon's Den

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The French economist Thomas Piketty wrote that global inequality has worsened

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant and Benedict Cumberbatch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck plays a despondent Nick Dunne in David Fincher's 'Gone Girl'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty (L) and Carl Barât look at the scene as people begin to be crushed

music
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Caral Barat of The Libertines performs on stage at British Summer Time Festival at Hyde Park

music
Arts and Entertainment
Ariana Grande and Iggy Azalea perform on stage at the Billboard Music Awards 2014

music
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Iraq crisis: How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over the north of the country

    How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over the northern Iraq

    A speech by an ex-MI6 boss hints at a plan going back over a decade. In some areas, being Shia is akin to being a Jew in Nazi Germany, says Patrick Cockburn
    The evolution of Andy Serkis: First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

    The evolution of Andy Serkis

    First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
    You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial: Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried

    You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial...

    Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried
    Refugee children from Central America let down by Washington's high ideals

    Refugee children let down by Washington's high ideals

    Democrats and Republicans refuse to set aside their differences to cope with the influx of desperate Central Americas, says Rupert Cornwell
    Children's books are too white, says Laureate

    Children's books are too white, says Laureate

    Malorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
    Blackest is the new black: Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...

    Blackest is the new black

    Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...
    Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

    Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

    The US Ambassador to London holds 'jeans and beer' gigs at his official residence – it's all part of the job, he tells Chris Green
    Meet the Quantified Selfers: From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor

    Meet the 'Quantified Selfers'

    From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor
    Madani Younis: Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

    Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

    Madani Younis wants the neighbourhood to follow his work as closely as his audiences do
    Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

    Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

    When it comes to national stereotyping, the Irish – among others – know it can pay to play up to outsiders' expectations, says DJ Taylor
    Gavin Maxwell's bitter legacy: Was the otter man the wildlife champion he appeared to be?

    Otter man Gavin Maxwell's bitter legacy

    The aristocrat's eccentric devotion to his pets inspired a generation. But our greatest living nature writer believes his legacy has been quite toxic
    Joanna Rowsell: The World Champion cyclist on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia

    Joanna Rowsell: 'I wear my wig to look normal'

    The World Champion cyclist on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef gives raw ingredients a lift with his quick marinades

    Bill Granger's quick and delicious marinades

    Our chef's marinades are great for weekend barbecuing, but are also a delicious way of injecting flavour into, and breaking the monotony of, weekday meals
    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
    Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

    Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

    In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport