AN OFFICER AND A SPY
By Robert Harris
Alfred A Knopf, $27.95, 448 pages
Writing about the trial and conviction of French army officer Alfred Dreyfus must be as enticing and daunting to a novelist as writing about the trial and conviction of Anne Boleyn. Historians, novelists and filmmakers have explored Dreyfus' and Boleyn's lives again and again, pouring out millions of contentious — or sometimes adulatory — words about them. Neither of them had a fair trial; the evidence against them was tenuous at best.
Their plight makes them pitiable, and the motivations and machinations of their enemies are mysterious and fascinating. Still, as much as their oft-told tales might captivate a novelist, the task of reimagining them and presenting them freshly and usefully is formidable. In "An Officer and A Spy," Robert Harris solves this problem by telling Dreyfus' story slant, showing it through the eyes of Georges Picquart, who became head of French espionage shortly after the trial.
Dreyfus was a Jew from Alsace, the French border province ceded to the Germans in the 1870-71 Franco-Prussian War. When Dreyfus was accused of passing armaments secrets to the German Embassy in 1894, virtually every French newspaper and magazine trumpeted his Jewish and Alsatian heritage. Obviously, he was a spy and, by extension, all Jews were likely to be traitors. Anti-Semitic rioters, egged on by the barrage of newsprint, tore through French cities. Dreyfus was convicted, degraded and transported to the old French prison on Devil's Island off the coast of South America.
What must he have felt suffering the heat and solitude of that torrid place, knowing that his name was dishonored, knowing that vindication was scarcely a possibility? Mr. Harris does not speculate. His novel begins as Dreyfus is formally degraded, a procedure he shows from Picquart's point of view as an official observer of the trial and degradation. The torments of Dreyfus' life on Devil's Island are also described objectively as Picquart reads of them in Army documents. The only inside view we get of Dreyfus is via his letters to his wife, which cross Picquart's desk before she is allowed to see them.
Picquart believed the evidence against Dreyfus. Moreover, he confessed to disliking Jews. However, when a note written in the same hand as the one that condemned Dreyfus is retrieved from the German Embassy wastebasket, Picquart realizes that the spy passing information must be another officer, and he soon discovers which one. Here's where the happy ending should come, but a court-martial finds the guilty officer innocent. Picquart realizes that his deputies contrived the case against Dreyfus and will defend it and themselves at all costs. Senior officers — also implicated — support them, and Picquart is removed from his post and sent on a series of piffling missions to remote garrisons.
As Picquart pieces together what must have happened in the Dreyfus affair, "An Officer and A Spy" reads like detective fiction complete with experts and villains in sheep's clothing. At other times, it sounds closer to Edith Wharton or Henry James recounting the surface gloss hiding the inner cracks of fin de siecle French society. The defeat by Germany had mortified the French. The army needed to prove its worth and shore itself up. One way was to deny adamantly the possibility of error in the Dreyfus case. Yet with all these tensions, Paris was enjoyable for people such as Picquart: a talented musician, keen concertgoer, perceptive art critic and welcome guest.
In thus sketching the political and social parameters of the Dreyfus affair, Mr. Harris draws on his skills as a journalist for the British newspapers The Observer and The Sunday Times. His journalist's training also shows in the research that evidently underpins "An Officer and a Spy." It is essential, because readers need confidence that historical fiction is anchored in fact, yet the facts must stay tactfully in the background where no one can stumble over them. Mr. Harris achieves this through artfully paced exposition that moves attention around, focusing on the army, Picquart's career, his work with his staff, his life in bourgeois Paris, and on scenes elsewhere: in North Africa, where Picquart faces the ruin of his career, and to Devil's Island and the cruelty of Dreyfus' imprisonment.
Perhaps Mr. Harris' journalistic experience also accounts for the timeliness of his work. In 2012, when we were still staggering from the shock of the financial meltdown, he published "The Fear Index," which described a computer program that used artificial intelligence to control and ultimately wreck the banking world. "An Officer and a Spy" appears just as we are thinking about the implications of government surveillance of telephone communications and about Edward Snowden's other revelations. How will we deal with these issues? How will our conversations and actions be shaped by our anxieties and blind spots? "An Officer and a Spy" — a beautifully crafted novel of great intelligence — has much to suggest.
Claire Hopley is a writer and editor in Amherst, Mass.