Robert Harris is a master storyteller. Whether he turns his attention to a volcano exploding, ghost writing the memoirs of a questionable politician, the deathly politics of Rome’s Senate, or the Nazis winning the Second World War, you know you can rely on him to tell a rollicking tale based on sound handling of the historical facts.
An Officer and a Spy has so many echoes of today it is uncanny, the true story on which it is based took place in 1895. Don’t let the historical basis of the story deter you; this is a good old-fashioned spy story complete with forgeries, eavesdropping, surveillance and murder.
The spy of the title is Captain Alfred Dreyfus, convicted as a military spy and sent to Devil’s Island. The captain is Georges Picquart, who witnesses the humiliation of Dreyfus in front of a baying mob. Picquart, who after this opening scene is promoted to run the Statistical Section of France’s Ministry of War, discovers evidence that puts Dreyfus’ conviction in doubt. His superiors dismiss his concerns and tell him to forget them. He doesn’t forget, instead undertaking his own investigations which uncover evidence of a new spy. His efforts lead him to a prison cell. Aghast at the army’s willingness to accept a miscarriage of justice rather than the upset of a retrial, he doesn’t stop fighting for justice. “For the first time in my life I carry hatred inside me. It is an almost physical thing, like a concealed knife. Sometimes, when I am alone, I like to take it out and run my thumb along its cold, sharp blade.”
Underlying the spy story is the fact that Dreyfus is a Jew. The anti-semitism in the French army portrayed by Harris is deeply disturbing in the light of rising right-wing extremism in Europe today against minorities.
The cause of Dreyfus is taken up by luminaries of the time, including the novelist Emile Zola, who uses the power of the press in the fight to bring Dreyfus home for re-trial. To Picquart , the army’s refusal to admit its mistake “really, it is beyond hypocrisy; it is beyond even lying; it has become a psychosis.”
‘An Officer and a Spy’ by Robert Harris [UK: Hutchinson] Buy now
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