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The title of Robert Harris' latest historical thriller seems plain enough on the face of it, But like the affair it describes, there is more to it than meets the eye. Presented with the title in 1895, the overwhelming majority of French citizens would have known immediately to whom it referred - Alfred Dreyfus, French Army captain, traitor, and Jew. But there were many other officers involved in the Dreyfus scandal, and at least one actual spy.
Harris recounts the events in the present tense from the from the first person point of view of Colonel Georges Picquart, who was for a time head of the Statistical Section (the deliberately bland name of the military intelligence service) of the French Army. Picquart had taught Dreyfus in military college, had been involved in facilitating his arrest, and was present at Dreyfus' public humiliation, his formal military degradation when he was stripped of insignia and sword and displayed to an audience baying for his blood. It was then that Picquart's life was utterly changed, though he realizes it only in retrospect. When the minister of war, General Mercier, asks Picquart what he thinks of the group of army officers that has handled the Dreyfus inquiry, he makes a diplomatic answer: they were "a dedicated group of patriots, doing invaluable work and receiving little of no recognition."
It's a righter answer than he knows, for it marks him as "one of us" in the eyes of the general staff and will shortly lead to his promotion to the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel, the youngest in the Army, and a posting as head of the Statistical Section to replace the dying Colonel Sandherr. At almost the same moment, Dreyfus is brought out to stand facing the invited audience. Spat upon, his clothing in tatters, he tries with his whole strength to maintain dignity and composure. He has only one thing to say and repeats it, "I am innocent." His very assertion is received as a token of his guilt. But a seed of doubt is planted deep in Picquart's soul.
Picquart truly is "one of us." A dedicated, if unreflective, anti-Semite, he is a career officer from a middle-class family who has assimilated the military code of honour as his own moral guide. He is unmarried, though he has long and steady relationships with women. He appears indifferent to any prospect of fatherhood. The Army is his life and the only real life he wants. Although he is happy at the career boost that his new rank and position represents, he is not happy to be landed with a desk job in Intelligence, even as head of the section. But he obediently accepts and sets about doing the best job he can.
There lies his undoing. He was not promoted to do his best, but, as it turns out, his worst. To forget Dreyfus, to bury the weaknesses of the case against him, and to fit smoothly into the machinery of the general staff. When, however, Picquart comes across evidence that the case against Dreyfus was not only weak, but based on forged documents, and later on, evidence that there is a real (if rather unimportant) spy, another officer, still active and clearly responsible for the security breaches for which Dreyfus was punished, his sense of honour will not allow him to ignore the facts. Part One of the novel is essentially a kind of detective story, detailing Picquart's investigations and final recognition that he must do something on Dreyfus' behalf.
Part Two concerns what happens once Picquart has failed to breach the stone wall of Army refusal to retreat on the Dreyfus question, regardless of evidence. Picquart is astute enough to base his arguments not on vain appeals to honour but on tactical grounds. He believes that in his modern age of cameras and surveillance, no facts can be suppressed forever and that it is best to cede losing ground than have it seized from under you. He is dispatched to Tunisia for his troubles, sent into exile and warned to shut up or face the kind of military discipline that Dreyfus experienced. He is profoundly unwilling to risk his life in the army for Dreyfus, a man he neither likes nor admires. But in the end, he must or lose his own self-respect to find that all of his pleasures are tainted with shame.
Picquart is a real historical figure, though he never left the written account of his life that this book purports to be. No character in the book is altogether fictional, and Harris follows the developments of the Dreyfus affair, "perhaps the greatest political scandal and miscarriage of justice in history," closely. Nevertheless, this is an absolutely rivetting novel, even if the reader knows (and most must) how it all turned out. It is rivetting not only in its own terms but for the light it sheds on our own particular times. Thanks to Edward Snowden and before him Chelsea (Bradley) Manning, what should happen to whistleblowers is much on our minds these days. AN OFFICER AND A SPY reminds us that we have neither invented whistle-blowing nor eliminated the need for it. Despite all the stonewalling and obfuscation, the truth came out in fin-du-siècle France as it does now. What has changed, however, is our capacity to be shocked by it. Repeated blows have diminished our ability even to be surprised.
§ Yvonne Klein is a writer, translator, and retired college English professor who lives in Montreal.
Reviewed by Yvonne Klein, December 2013
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