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.

Arts and Entertainment

Filming to begin on two new series due to be aired on Dave from next year


Arts and Entertainment
Kit Harington plays MI5 agent Will Holloway in Spooks: The Greater Good

'You can't count on anyone making it out alive'film
Arts and Entertainment
War veteran and father of Peter and Laust Thoger Jensen played by Lars Mikkelson

TVBBC hopes latest Danish import will spell success

Arts and Entertainment
Carey Mulligan in Far From The Madding Crowd
FilmCarey Mulligan’s Bathsheba would fit in better in The Hunger Games
Arts and Entertainment
Pandas-on-heat: Mary Ramsden's contribution is intended to evoke the compound the beasts smear around their habitat
Iart'm Here But You've Gone exhibition has invited artists to produce perfumes
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

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

    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
    Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

    The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

    A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
    'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

    Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

    Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

    The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
    Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

    Vince Cable exclusive interview

    Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
    Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

    Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

    Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
    Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

    Everyone is talking about The Trews

    Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
    Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

    It's time for my close-up

    Meet the man who films great whites for a living
    Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

    Homeless people keep mobile phones

    A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before
    'Queer saint' Peter Watson left his mark on British culture by bankrolling artworld giants

    'Queer saint' who bankrolled artworld giants

    British culture owes a huge debt to Peter Watson, says Michael Prodger
    Pushkin Prizes: Unusual exchange programme aims to bring countries together through culture

    Pushkin Prizes brings countries together

    Ten Scottish schoolchildren and their Russian peers attended a creative writing workshop in the Highlands this week
    14 best kids' hoodies

    14 best kids' hoodies

    Don't get caught out by that wind on the beach. Zip them up in a lightweight top to see them through summer to autumn
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The acceptable face of the Emirates

    The acceptable face of the Emirates

    Has Abu Dhabi found a way to blend petrodollars with principles, asks Robert Fisk