Harris, Robert: An Officer and a Spy

dreyfussThe host for the evening had encountered “An Officer and a Spy”(2013) at his bedside when visiting a friend in Arnisdale. Having started the book by Robert Harris during his visit, he persuaded his friend to let him take it to complete his read.  He thoroughly enjoyed the book. Recommending a recently published book was a bit of a departure from his previous recommendations, the novelty of this might have influenced his choice.

He spent some time describing the historical context of the “Dreyfus Affair”, which had become a national scandal that tore France apart, and has had an enduring influence ever since.

The Franco-Prussian war of 1870 resulted in France losing Alsace and Lorraine, and signalled the setting up of the French Republic. Tensions between Catholic royalists and Protestants remained throughout the post-war period, manifesting in the failure of  both the First and the Second Republics, several uprisings, accusations of corruption and other covert efforts to destabilize the Republic. French Protestants accepted the Jews, and after centuries of persecution they were given equal rights. For historical reasons many Jewish families lived in Alsace and Lorraine.

Alfred Dreyfus was born in Mulhouse in Alsace in 1859, into a large wealthy Jewish family. When Dreyfus was 10 years old his family was uprooted by the war and moved to Paris. It is thought that this experience influenced Dreyfus to pursue a military career. The French Army was slow to integrate with the Republic, and many monarchist and/or Catholic allegiances remained within its ranks at the time of his training. This proved challenging for Dreyfus, as his advancement through the ranks was affected by anti-Semitism, particularly at the École Supèrieure de Guerre. In his final exams there he encountered a General who held the view that Jews were not desirable in the Army.

In contrast Georges Picquart’s Catholic upbringing and early military career were unencumbered. He rose rapidly through the ranks following his graduation from the École Spéciale Militaire de Saint-Cyr and became a lecturer at the L’École Supérieure de Guerre, where he first encountered Dreyfus as a student.

This scene setting opened the discussion on the merits of the book. This was Robert Harris’s 9th novel. A number of those present had read earlier works, including “Fatherland” and “The Ghost”, and some considered this to be his best.

They were not alone in extolling the virtues of this novel, with Harris receiving the “Walter Scott” prize for historical fiction and the Crime Writers Association’s award for the “Best Thriller of the Year”.

The novel opens with the conviction and degradation of Dreyfus, and with Major Picquart witnessing these events and reporting back to the Minister of War, Auguste Mercier. Dreyfus is shipped off to Devil’s Island, while Picquart is promoted to Colonel and made head of the “Statistical Section”, the secret intelligence unit that hunted Dreyfus down.

Picquart is uncomfortable with what he finds in the Section. There is a lack of openness and an atmosphere of subterfuge. He sets about questioning the evidence supporting the conviction of Dreyfus and exposing discrepancies. He also identifies an alternative suspect still active in the army. Undaunted by the task of taking on the military and political leaders of the day, Picquart sets about challenging the corruption endemic within their institutions. Against all the odds he succeeds.

Unusually for our group, there was a unanimous view that this was “a great read”. It was variously described as a “page turner”, a “sleep robber”, and a “gripping thriller”.

The pace and flow of the book were much admired. In particular the device of narrating the story through Georges Picquart was thought to be inspired.

While most of our group had some prior knowledge of the “Dreyfus Affair” and had linked the exposure of the scandal to Émile Zola, no one had heard of Harris’s hero Picquart. His characterization was greatly appreciated by all. A complex individual, stiff and dismissive, highly intelligent and principled, and with indefatigable energy directed at exposing the corrupt practices of those around him. It was suggested that he could have been a difficult man to like. His treatment of both friends and foe seemed impersonal and lacking intimacy, yet he displayed social skills when the need required.

Harris’s impeccable research of the mountains of paper written about the “Affair” impressed us all. His search took him through court transcripts, historical analysis and newspaper coverage.

As we sat in the drawing room of an Edinburgh property built in the 1830’s, this writer wondered what the residents of the house would have made of the case. A quick check on the coverage provided by the local paper of the time, the Edinburgh Evening News, confirmed that there was detailed and extensive coverage given to the matter by the press. It was a “juicy story” by the standards of the day, which ran and ran for several years. It would appear that nothing really changes, except perhaps the quality of the journalism.

We admired Harris’s craftsmanship. There was no “flowery writing”, but instead authentic descriptive detail, tight story telling and scrupulous attention to the facts.

Despite our knowing the generality of the story and the outcome, Harris was able to add value and detail which brought the story to life. His account of the treatment of Dreyfus, through the “degradation” and his imprisonment on Devil’s Island with all of the cruelties administered by his guards (on the orders of the most senior officers in the French army) was skillfully layered together with the description of Picquart’s own treatment when he refused to play along with the subterfuge. Together they developed a heightened sense of indignation in the reader.

The complexity and intrigue of the plot was enhanced by Harris’s ability to bring to life the other characters and their actions in convincing detail, thereby making clear their responsibility for what happened.

We made comparisons with the writings of Hilary Mantel and John Le Carré. It was suggested that, while Harris was an easier read than Mantel, his character development was weaker and, as a consequence, less satisfying to the reader.

We discussed the role of Émile Zola and the impact of his open letter, titled “J’accuse” which was addressed to the French President Félix Faure and given front-page coverage in the Paris daily newspaper L’Aurore. His letter shook the establishment and undoubtedly brought the matter out into the open. However, it led to Zola’s prosecution for criminal libel. He was convicted on 23d February 1898 and avoided imprisonment by fleeing to London. He was able to return to Paris in June 1899, by which time Dreyfus had been offered and had accepted a pardon. This fell short of exoneration which would have confirmed his innocence, but Dreyfus considered that it was better to be free rather than run the risk of being found guilty at a further trial. Zola was philosophical about this stating that “The truth is on the march, and nothing shall stop it”.

One comment on Zola’s intervention summed it up very succinctly: “They lied to protect the country. He told the truth to save it.” The group admired the courage displayed by Zola, and compared the protected position of the whistleblower today faced by Zola.

The introduction of legislation designed to protect the whistleblower and the increasing importance of DNA profiling in providing the evidence needed for conviction or acquittal were cited as positive developments in the search for the truth. However, some thought that the practices of “cover up” and “closing ranks” were at least as common today as they were then.

There followed a lengthy discussion about the legal systems in France and the UK, their respective strengths and weaknesses, the role of the European Court of Justice, the use of tariffs in sentencing, jury system inadequacies, the role of the Judicial Conduct Investigations Office, plea bargaining, the adversarial legal system, the peculiarities of Courts-martial, and much, much more.

Some of our group were very familiar with the dark arts of political intrigue having backgrounds in the Civil Service, and they were able to provide anecdotal commentary around the machinations of political chicanery. It would appear, from an interpretation of what theywith the vulnerability  inferred, that nothing has changed.

The discussion returned to “An Officer and a Spy”. We marvelled at the fact that Harris had managed to write the book in only six months. We searched for weaknesses or differences of opinion, but none could be found. There was only one member with a negative view and that was in relation to the book cover. He did not appreciate the author’s name occupying a much more dominant position than the book title! This niggle did not influence the unanimous view that this was a very good book and an excellent read.

We look forward to the Polanski film that is expected to follow the publication of “An Officer and a Spy”, and to “Dictator” which will be the conclusion to Harris’s Cicero trilogy.