Breathing Significant Life into Proceedings: Robert Harris'
An Officer and a Spy

Posted on May 10, 2014 by in Verity La Reviews

Officer SpyReview by Robert Goodman

The blurb for An Officer and a Spy refers to its subject – the Dreyfus Affair – as ‘the most famous miscarriage of justice in history’. This is a big call and, as a quick straw poll of my colleagues and friends demonstrated, probably an erroneous one. Which is why Robert Harris’s new novel on the subject is so important. The Dreyfus Affair is important for what it can teach us about turn-of-the-century Europe and the forces that shaped both World Wars. But more critical are lessons around the misuse of the judicial process, the dangers that lie in the unchecked power of the military and secret services, and the manipulation of racist and nationalist sentiments which still resonate strongly.

Alfred Dreyfus was a French military officer accused of spying for the Germans in the dying years of the nineteenth century. German military power was building, France was still smarting at its loss of Alsace and Lorraine in 1870, and the people were looking for someone to blame. Enter Alfred Dreyfus, the perfect suspect – he was Jewish so, in the eyes of the majority of the French people, not really French, moneyed, and had family in Germany. Dreyfus was arrested, questioned, put on trial and found guilty of treason. The verdict was based on evidence that was deemed too secret for either Dreyfus or his lawyer to see, handed directly to the judges by the secret service, and never made public. Dreyfus, who consistently protested his innocence, was convicted on that evidence. Ritually humiliated, Dreyfus was summarily packed off to Devil’s Island, the first (and only) prisoner sent there in over 30 years.

Harris’s story is narrated by Colonel Georges Picquart, a key but minor player in the original Dreyfus trial. Rewarded for his service at the trial, Picquart is put in charge of the ‘Statistical Section’ – the French secret service, and the area that had gathered the ‘evidence’ on Dreyfus. Picquart, a military man, does not support spycraft as a tool of war, he sees it as underhand and dishonourable. But it turns out that he is pretty good at it, and he begins his own covert investigation into Dreyfus. In time he identifies a second German spy in the French military. He soon realises that, rather than two, there has only ever been one spy and that Dreyfus was framed by the Statistical Section at the bequest of their political masters. And this is when Picquart’s troubles really begin.

Portrait of Lieutenant Colonel Georges Picquart, photographed by A. Gerschel (Source: www.dreyfus.culture.fr)

Portrait of Lieutenant Colonel Georges Picquart, photographed by A. Gerschel (Source: www.dreyfus.culture.fr)

Despite his commitment to and belief in the army and his ingrained anti-semitism, Picquart cannot deny the evidence. He decides that something needs to be done – that the army, and the country, can only be saved by revealing the rot within. The novel charts Picquart’s attempts to achieve this by revealing the army’s greatest secret – that Dreyfus was innocent, that the dossier used to convict him was ‘sexed up’. But the army has too much riding on the idea of Dreyfus as a traitor and the nationalist sentiment that the conviction supports. No one wants the truth or the embarrassment that it will bring and Picquart finds himself in a Kafkaesque world where he is the one put on trial and the traitor he has identified is not only protected but promoted by the army.

Robert Harris has written a number of historical novels. His authorial eye has wandered over the Bletchley Park code breakers during World War Two in Enigma and the Roman world of Pompeii. In each of these cases, as here, he assumes that many readers will know the basic outline of the story – that the codes will be broken, that the volcano will erupt. And yet, despite the end never being in doubt, he manages to deliver a riveting novel full of revelation and tension. An Officer and a Spy, despite being based on a history of court cases and correspondence, has an number of spy-thriller and courtroom set pieces that wouldn’t be out of place in an episode of Homeland – piecing together rubbish from the German Embassy to recreate secret documents, bugging a German officer’s club by putting a listening device in their chimney, clandestine meetings with informants.

The Dreyfus Affair was a series of court cases and hearings, and transcripts of these are on the public record. The characters are all historical and the story is underpinned by a significant amount of historical documentation. And in the Author’s Notes, Harris refers to the reams of letters and reports that have only recently released by the French government archive. While he claims to be faithful to this record, Harris manages to breathe a significant amount of life into these proceedings.

The Dreyfus Affair occurred over a century ago but the themes of trials based on restricted information, the power of the security services and the military to protect their own and cover up mistakes, the power of racist ideology to drive political responses, the use of the media to whip up nationalistic sentiment, are very much still with us. If not the most famous miscarriage of justice in history then at least one of them. Harris does not have to work hard with this story for the parallels to be clear and he makes the exploration of them engaging and thought provoking. One would think, given its international prominence and lingering memory, that we would have learnt some lessons from the Dreyfus affair. But all we seemed to have learnt is how to do it all better.

An Officer and a Spy
Robert Harris
Hutchison, 2014
496pp, $32.99

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