Robert Harris blends history and suspense in a remarkable retelling of the Dreyfus Affair

An Officer and a Spy. Robert Harris. Knopf. 448 pages. $27.95.
An Officer and a Spy. Robert Harris. Knopf. 448 pages. $27.95.

In 1894, a French army captain named Alfred Dreyfus was accused of attempting to pass military secrets to the Germans. The evidence against him consisted solely of torn-up pieces of an anonymous letter salvaged from a wastebasket in the German embassy in Paris. Dreyfus didn’t write the letter; but he was a Jew, the only one serving on the anti-Semitic General Staff, and his superiors refused to consider other suspects.

After an unfair trial and a degradation ceremony before a large hostile crowd, Dreyfus was transported in deplorable conditions across the Atlantic to the penal colony at Devil’s Island, a half square mile of inhumanity encircled by sharks. The story would have ended there had it not been for the efforts of an uncommon man who sought to rectify what Robert Harris calls, in the foreword to his brilliant new thriller, “the greatest political scandal and miscarriage of justice in history.”

This may not be an exaggeration. The Dreyfus Affair, as it is popularly known, captured the world’s attention. It drove France, the cultural center of Western civilization, to the brink of civil war. Around Europe the mask of modernity came undone, exposing an ancient, deep-seated enmity toward Jews, no matter how hard they worked to fit in. As Hannah Arendt observed, the Affair was a “dress rehearsal” for the danse macabre the Nazis would stage a generation later.

Now Harris has written an exceedingly accessible novel of the Affair, full of intrigue and skullduggery, made all the more remarkable for its basis in reality. In bestsellers such as Fatherland and Pompeii, Harris skillfully blended history and suspense. But in An Officer and a Spy, he outdoes himself. The period details are pitch-perfect yet unobtrusive, the dialogue flows effortlessly, and the action pulses with intensity.

The narrator is Georges Picquart, the young colonel who put his career and his life on the line to exonerate Dreyfus. At first Picquart believes him guilty. But soon after this bright go-getter is put in charge of the army’s intelligence unit, he discovers that the real traitor is Ferdinand Walsin Esterhazy, a disreputable major who has incurred gambling debts. When he breaks the news to the civilian and military leadership, he expects them to set Dreyfus free. But they cannot bring themselves to concede such a colossal blunder. Drop it, they order Picquart. The confidence of the people in their army must supersede everything, including conscience and honor. “We simply can’t allow ourselves to be distracted from these great issues by the sordid matter of one Jew on a rock,” the war minister says.

But Picquart won’t let it go. He is no saint. He has many flaws, including harboring anti-Semitic feelings. But Harris also conveys Picquart’s engaging personality and keen sense of right and wrong. Eventually the generals turn on the colonel. They banish him to Tunisia, where he is ordered on a suicide mission, and rally around Esterhazy, who is hailed by right-wing nationalists as a hero of the republic.

And yet Picquart outwits his enemies. He finds a way to slip back home and tell his story to Dreyfus’ supporters. Among them is Emile Zola, France’s greatest living novelist, whose impassioned polemic, “J’accuse,” stirs up a firestorm. But Zola is a minor figure here; the spotlight is fixed firmly on Picquart, where it belongs.

Espionage, adultery, murder, suicide, cover-ups, fame-ups, mob violence, courtroom drama — Harris’ novel has everything a reader could want. There is even a duel. At no time was I bored. Roman Polanski, who collaborated with Harris on the adaptation of his novel The Ghost Writer is interested in bringing An Officer and a Spy to the screen, no doubt because the convicted child rapist sees himself as a victim, like Dreyfus. If Polanski does direct it, he has Harris to thank for greasing the wheels with this film-ready narrative.

You may be tempted to compare Picquart to Julian Assange and Edward Snowden. But unlike those two whistleblowers, Picquart was no radical; he wanted to reform the system, not bring it down. And he was willing to accept the consequences of his actions, even if it meant rotting in jail or worse.

Ariel Gonzalez teaches English at Miami Dade College.

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