Many of us will have heard of ‘The Dreyfus Affair’ and will remember it as a distant memory from history classes as a child, but I suspect, like me, your remaining knowledge will be selective and riddled with holes and inconsistencies. Such a shame when you consider this pivotal time in French military and political history before the First World War. It gripped a nation at the time and the world more generally. This novel has modern day parallels in the forms of anti-Semitism and whistle-blowers.
The 2013 novel, An Officer and a Spy is a 2013 is a fictional thriller based on these dramatic events in French history. It is written by the supremely talented and diverse journalist and writer, Robert Harris. The novel recalls the true story of the head of counter-espionage, Colonel Georges Picquart, in the late 1800s and early 1900s.
There had been some disquiet about the conviction of Dreyfus for spying and his subsequent incarceration on Devils Island off the coast of South America. An island made famous in the novel Papillon which was written by convicted criminal, Henri Charrière. Picquart began to investigate the evidence against Dreyfus, who was from a Jewish background, which he found to be very weak and that the government and military had manufactured or altered crucial evidence. Picquart was pressured to forget his findings despite his assertion that the actual spy was still operating.
Anti-Jewish feeling was running high at that time and Dreyfus initially had little public support, but following an open letter published by the highly respected writer, Émile Zola, the tide began to turn. The letter, J’accuse, was published in a French newspaper in January 1898 and was a damming indictment of the whole affair – the rest is history….as they say!
The Harris book is the recipient of the Walter Scott Prize and the American Library in Paris Book Award, both in 2014.
Harris has researched many newly released documents and many of the original sources such as newspaper reports, the court transcripts and Dreyfus’s own written recollections. This is a thoroughly enthralling spy and political intrigue thriller made all the more captivating as it is based closely on fact. Picquart is shown as a principled man who strives to expose the truth despite overwhelming opposition from superiors and his peers. His fate is utterly intertwined with that of Dreyfus and so is his final judgement. An Officer and a Spy is a superb novel which brings great clarity to the subject and is utterly thrilling.
Robert Harris was born in Nottingham in central England in 1957. Following a career in television and as a journalist he came to prominence with his best-selling novel, Fatherland. He has subsequently published a succession of top novels including Enigma, Archangel, Pompeii, Imperium, The Ghost which was made into a very effective and evocative film by Roman Polanski, The Fear Index and Dictator. He is, as you can see, a difficult man to pigeon-hole as his works are quite diverse and expertly crafted.