An Officer and A Spy is the first novel I read of Robert Harris. Harris shot to international fame with his debut novel, Fatherland, and, as the cliché goes, has never looked back, since. Harris, when he was a BBC-reporter in the 1980s, wrote a few non-fiction books, one of which was the endlessly riveting Selling Hitler, which I have reviewed on this blog.
I picked up An Officer and A Spy, not so much because it was written by Harris, or, not entirely because of that, as because the subject interested me. The Drefus Affair, which took place in France at the turn of last century, is one of those historical event, I should imagine, many would be aware of, or, heard of, but of which, most would not know the details. (That Harris wrote the novel also made the decision easy; I might not have been inclined to read the book if it were written by someone whose name I did not recognise).
Alfred Drefus, a Jewish officer in the French army, was convicted in 1895 of treason. Drefus was found guilty of passing on French army secrets to the Germans. He was sentenced to solitary confinement on the Devil’s Island, an ice-free island near the north-eastern tip of the Antarctic Peninsula (near Venezuela), where he was subjected to emotional torture of very impressive proportions—Drefus was forbidden to speak to anyone during the entire period of his incarceration. The Drefus affair, as it came to be known, aroused strong public emotions in France at the time, and public opinion was sharply divided as to whether justice was done. Latent Anti-Semitism as well as hurt French pride and the inevitable French paranoia towards the Germans, following the heavy defeat of the French army by the Germans in the 1870 war (resulting in Germany appropriating French regions bordering with Germany), played a vital part in how Drefus was treated and viewed throughout the trial. That Drefus was a German Jewish did not help. The Drefus case is considered as a great miscarriage of justice in French history. Emil Zola was one of the many influential intellectuals in the French public life who were disturbed by the handling of the investigation by the French army, and took up the case of the convicted Jewish officer, which eventually led to the exoneration of Drefus.
It is highly likely that the higher echelons of the French army were aware that Drefus was innocent, but allowed, nevertheless, for him to be the fall-guy, and, when they became aware that truth might come out, went to great length to suppress it.
It would, however, be wrong to say that everyone in the French army was complicit in the conspiracy (and, by association, an anti-Semite). There were French army officers who were uneasy about what happened to Drefus, and showed great courage and righteousness, in the face of intimidation and threats by the increasingly unsettled French army, in revealing truth.
The French army-officer who played a major role in the re-trial and eventual exoneration of Alfred Drefus, whose name has disappeared under the sand of time, was Colonel Georges Picquart, the protagonist of Harris’s absorbing novel.
The story is narrated from the eyes of Colonel Georges Picquart, of French army. Picquart comes to hold the belief that Alfred Derfus did not receive a fair trial. Picaquart, a member of French army’s General Staff, has witnessed the court martial of Drefus in his capacity as a reporter. Within six months of Drefus’s conviction Picaquart is promoted to the position of the chief of the operational arm of French army’s intelligence section, known as statistical section. Picquart has no, or not many, warm feelings towards Drefus. Drefus is a graduate of the prestigious Ecole Polytechnique and Ecole de Guerre (French army’s war college) where Picquart was his teacher. Drefus, with his somewhat standoffish manner and a tendency towards viewing any unfavourable decision as resulting from crypto-anti-Semitism, has not made it easy for others to develop warm feelings towards him, and Picquart is no exception. Picquart, the novel hints, might have had a smidgen of anti-Semitism in him—all the more remarkable, then, that he fights tenaciously and even risks his own military career to prove the innocence of Drefus, once he is satisfied that Drefus is the fall guy, and the real traitor is someone else. Picquart has always believed that the case against Drefus was weak—he has told the French war minister, General Mercier, who has had Drefus arrested in an unseemly hurry in the absence of any clear proof of Drefus’s guilt, that Drefus’s acquittal was the likely outcome of the court martial. Picquart is, therefore, surprised and uneasy when Drefus is found guilty. When Picquart takes over the reins of the statistical section he sees the photocopy of the letter, which was considered in the court martial to be the incontrovertible evidence of Drefus’s guilt. Picquart realises that the handwriting is not Drefus’s but that of one Major Ferdinand Esterhazy, a feckless, inveterate liar, whom Picquart suspects to be the man who was passing the secrets to Germans. This had indeed been the case. At the time of the court martial several hand-writing experts had rejected the notion that handwriting in the letter was Drefus’s, until an obliging one came along and gave the army the opinion they wanted to hear. An army officer lied to the tribunal, and, just in case if this was not enough, a secret file, full of forged documents and confirming Drefus’s guilt, was passed on to the tribunal, with full knowledge of Mercier, keeping the legal team representing Drefus completely in the dark. As Picquart’s suspicions grow that the wrong man has been sent to gaol, he also begins to suspect that those who conspired to frame Drefus are in his own department and, backed up by the powerful army brass, will do the same to him. Picquart begins to carry out his secret investigation. As Picquart delves deeper into he realises that the rot goes right to the top of the French army. Picquart begins his fight against echelons of French army to prove the innocence of a man he has disliked but who, Picquart believes, is innocent.
Robert Harris has narrated a gripping tale that conflates the historical narrative as well as the personal perspective (of Picquart). Harris’s prose is dry, sardonic, but also elegant. The Georges Picquart that emerges from this narrative is emotionally aloof, at times cynical, but also someone with a strong sense of where his moral compass should be and uncompromising on his principles once he makes up his mind. If I have to make criticism I’d say that the novel does not give you a good enough idea of the rabid anti-Semitism that was affecting at least part of the French society at the time. One, therefore, might wonder whether the decision of the French army to make Drefus the fall guy was motivated only by cynical opportunism of the army combined with the determination of the army generals to not be seen to have made a mistake or whether some of the higher army officers were also affected by the anti-Semite fervour. Harris made the decision to make Picquart, and not Drefus, the hero of his story. Picquart, in some ways an army-insider himself, and, more pertinently, is focused on the injustice he felt was done to Drefus. Picquart is uninterested in the wider, cultural ramifications of anti-Semitism that might have influenced the decision of the French army to scapegoat Drefus. The absence of the details of historical backdrop to the Drefus affair, thus, is understandable, but it still seems like a gap.
The Drefus affair might have happened more than a century ago, but it is still relevant in the twenty-first century. in the As I type this, the Labour Party leader, Jeremy Corbyn, is embroiled in a controversy whereby he stands accused of either deliberately being or allowing himself to be the figurehead of racist Anti-Semitism within the Labour Party, particularly amongst his noisy supporters).
An Officer and A Spy is a very satisfying read. It is a historical novel which reads like a thriller. Very much recommended.