An Officer and a Spy – Robert Harris

This is a fictionalized account of the Dreyfus affair, told from the perspective of Georges Picquart.

Dreyfus, a Jew from Alsace and army officer, was wrongly convicted of betraying his country by selling secrets to Germany. He was dismissed from the army in disgrace (done publicly) and sent to serve his life prison sentence in solitary confinement on Devil’s Island.

Subsequently, Colonel Georges Picquart, head of counter-espionage, found that Dreyfus was innocent, and identified the real traitor. The French army’s General Staff however, stuck their head in the sand. They refused to reconsider. Instead, they tried to make the problem go away by sending Picquart to North Africa and ignoring his findings.

If you know the details of the affair, the book may not do very much for you. (After all, there are no surprises.) However, if you (as applies to me) just have a hazy idea of the affair, and lack real knowledge of the details, this is a good and enjoyable way to get up to speed on it. I will return to that ‘enjoyable’ bit later.

First, it’s a novel that races along. There’s a good measure of tension, and the variety of characters is interesting. Some are cardboard stand-ins, but there’s enough meat to fill the stage.

Second, the stage is well portrayed. A frightening one it is, too. A military hierarchy that would do almost anything to protect itself, even at the price of injustice against against an innocent man. But he was only a Jew… and that’s one of the strong, poisonous currents that runs across the stage – and also through the veins of some of the characters. They hate Jews. Hate, as in violently hate. France is on show, warts and all.

Third, there is that issue of perspective and enjoyment. If there is one weakness in the book, it is that I am not sure how much I was persuaded that Picquart’s character would have behaved as he did in real life. In other words, the main character was not as strong as I imagined. But, at the same time, this may have been my personal prejudice at feeling guilty because I was enjoying a book about the terrible antisemitic tribulations heaped on poor Dreyfus. You see, it is good entertainment, because it is a fascinating story, in the main well told.

Finally, it’s fiction, not history. I don’t know enough about the historical details to critique Harris’ version, but he seems to be broadly in line with real life. Some of the timing seemed slightly askew, but that may have been for dramatic effect.

And that’s the bottom line: approach this with no prejudice nor foreknowledge, and you will be reading a good book, with a dramatic, tense, plot and much that may shock you. I approached the reading of this book with trepidation, for fear I would be bored. My fears were misplaced. Good stuff.