Wednesday, 9 October 2013

An Officer and a Spy by Robert Harris

published 2013











‘Major Dreyfus to see the Minister of War…’

I hear him announce himself to my orderly at the foot of the marble staircase in that familiar voice with its trace of German. I listen to the click of his boots as he mounts the steps, and then slowly he emerges into view – the cap, the epaulettes, the gold buttons, the braid, the sword, the stripe on his trousers: all exactly as it was before the degradation, but with the addition of the red ribbon of the Legion of Honour on his artilleryman’s black tunic.

He comes to a halt on the landing and salutes. ‘General Picquart.’

‘Major Dreyfus.’ I smile and extend my hand. ‘I have been waiting for you. Please come through.’


observations: The Dreyfus Affair is an endlessly fascinating and extraordinary story: it seems hard to credit sometimes, but then we also (if we are realists) can see how it might happen in our own countries. It seems beyond doubt that a wholly innocent man was stitched up as a spy and subjected to a horrendous punishment, based on little more than anti-semitism and his not being one of the lads. The true culprit was exonerated, and basically got away with it. Readers of Proust are very much aware of the great importance of the Dreyfus affair in French society of the time, dividing the great, the good, the rich, the powerful and the well-connected right down the middle: everyone had to take sides.

Robert Harris takes the story and does his trademark excellent job on it: easy to read, wholly convincing, and hard to put down. Even when you know how his stories end, he can fill them with tension. He uses a first person narration by one of the key players, Colonel Georges Picquart, who put his own career on the line for Dreyfus:




-- and Harris says that although he has tidied the story up for fictional purposes, just about all the people and incidents in the book are real.

There are historians who think that the ramifications of the Dreyfus Affair affected the French Army right through until the 1940s, involving weaknesses that contributed to the defeat by the Germans. Army cultures are always difficult for outsiders to understand, and Harris makes this clear, showing that senior men believed that armies depend totally on discipline and obedience, and that that can take precedence over justice and right. The Duke of Wellington, England’s most revered soldier, held this view too, and took a very hard line over any hint of mutiny - it seems likely he would have sacrificed what we now think of as basic human rights to what he saw as the greater good.

In the couldn’t-be-more-different-but-somehow-the-same department, Terry Pratchett takes an illuminating look at armies in Monstrous Regiment.

The picture of Colonel Picquart is from the Library of Congress, the picture of Dreyfus, top, is from George Eastman House.

9 comments:

  1. Robert Harris is a writer who appears on my shelves, but I have only read The Ghost. I've seen this lately and picked it up, but surprisingly for me put it back. I ought to read the other stuff first considering anything else.

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    1. I loved The Ghost, I thought it was his best one, and I very much liked the film too. I think Roman Polanski is going to make a film of this one too... Harris said it was RP's idea to write the book.

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  2. Moira - The Dreyfus Affair had so many political, military and social ramifications, to say nothing of Zola's famous response to it. I'm glad that Harris tells the story well. It's a powerful story.

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    1. Indeed, and Harris does do a great job on this complex story.

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  3. Moira thanks for bringing this book to my attention. I read a couple of books about Alfred Dreyfus many years ago. At the time it had a strong effect on me, but I came to believe nothing like that could happen again in any "civilised" country. I also believed book burning and academic boycotts similar in any way to those that occurred in Nazi Germany could never happen again. How naive of me.

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    1. Yes indeed, I know exactly what you mean: it never does to make assumptions like that, does it....

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  4. This is definitely a book I should read. For educational purposes if nothing else. However, I have The Ghost, Enigma, and Fatherland on my shelves unread, so I will go for them first. I am glad you liked the movie adaptation of The Ghost. I want to watch it after I read the book.

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    1. I'm uptodate with Harris, but I know exactly what you mean because there are other authors where I'm similarly placed. Enigma is my other great favourite, and again there is a very good film of it.

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    2. My husband is also interested in Enigma and bought a hard copy of it at the book sale (he doesn't like my mass market paperbacks). I forgot about the movie for that book. We have seen the movie, liked it, and still have a copy... but I will read first before re-watching ... I hope.

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