Robert Harris has, in An Officer and a Spy, brought vividly alive one of the most infamous periods in French history, known as The Dreyfus Affair. It is January 1895. Captain Alfred Dreyfus, a wealthy Jewish officer in the French Army, is convicted of being a spy and publicly humiliated in a carefully orchestrated public event, then incarcerated in barbaric conditions on a remote island.
An Officer and a Spy is told from the viewpoint of Colonel George Picquart, who appointment as the Statistical Section (the Army spooks) he becomes the youngest colonel.The promotion places him tantalizingly in the military’s inner sanctum with personal access to the Minister. But it brings him into head-on clash with a close-knit department that disapproves of his methods and envious of his position.
When Picquart uncovers a German spy operating within the Army he is surprised, then alarmed, by the reluctance of not just his senior officers but also the government to investigate. As the information he uncovers mounts u, he has to face the reality that Dreyfus was innocent.
Gradually Picquart realizes that not only did the army make a mistake, but its officers deliberately fabricated information and perjured themselves, driven by deep- seated anti-Semitism and blind unthinking support for an organisation that is their life. Few, except, famously, the author Emile Zola with his explosive essay J’Accuse, cared if an appalling wrong had been perpetrated and then covered-up.
Now it is Picquart who is the hunted and the shunned, whose loved ones are threatened, who is removed from his position and put on trial.
Harris paints a vivid picture of a country riven by overt anti Semitism and powerful nationalism. Whilst more than 120 years old the Dreyfus Affair still resonates with modern events: an intelligence agency “gone rogue”, racism, a Government willing to go to any lengths to cover up a damaging truth and the impact on a national psyche of overwhelming nationalism.
Like many of his other books, An Officer and a Spy is a fast-paced, detailed and nuanced read. Rarely has history, albeit a novelist’s view of history, so fascinating. Definitely one to pack for the beach over summer.
An Officer and a Spy is published by Hutchinson. Other fiction books by Harris include Enigma, Archangel, Pompeii, The Ghost and Imperium. Non fiction books include Selling Hitler and Gotcha: Media, The Government and the Falklands Crisis.