An Officer and a Spy
“. . . smart, literate, and accurate.”
British author Robert Harris has proven himself a master of the literary thriller, enthralling readers with vivid portraits of ancient Rome, World War II code-breakers, or an alternate history in which the Nazis have won World War II.
His new novel on the Dreyfus affair An Officer and a Spy is a brilliant and ultimately satisfying read. But for many pages, it tips the scales toward more literary fluency and fewer thrills. It is so expertly written that the detail slows the pace, and a reader may wind up as exhausted by legal intricacy as France was in the 1890s.
Alfred Dreyfus was a Jewish-French artillery captain falsely accused of giving secrets to the Germans and imprisoned in 1894. In 1898 Emile Zola famously embraced his cause with an open newspaper letter to the French president. Dreyfus was brought back from Devil’s Island, retried, convicted yet again on forged evidence, pardoned, and finally recognized as innocent and reinstated in the French army in 1906. He served in World War I.
The case became as convoluted as Watergate. There were several trials and hearings, the jailing of the courageous French colonel who discovered the spy was another man entirely, persecution of Zola, and so on. It divided France between conservatives and liberals and was a prelude to the vicious anti-Semitism tapped by Hitler.
Dreyfus has been the subject of scores of books, a dozen movies and TV films, and continued historical debate. Harris acknowledges that his subject was suggested by longtime collaborator Roman Polanski, the European film director who has had his own legal saga over a never-resolved American charge of sex with a minor in Los Angeles in 1977. The two are reportedly partnering on a new movie about Dreyfus.
But can this complicated 120-year-old tale of long-ago French politics and European anti-Semitism resonate with modern audiences? Harris must make difficult storytelling choices.
Dreyfus remains an enigma in the novel, largely offstage and never truly explained. The hero instead is the real life Georges Picquart, the lieutenant colonel assigned to counter espionage who discovered the proof against Dreyfus was nonexistent. Picquart’s challenge to corrupt military authorities led to his own jailing and forced resignation from the army, but eventually he was reinstated as a brigadier general.
Picquart is highly sympathetic in his lonely quest for justice, and the villainy of his superiors—all taken from history—is so venal and cynical that it would be hard to believe if not true. Harris meticulously recreates a meticulous French army officer, who uncovers corruption piece by intricate piece. We see 1890s France from Picquart’s apolitical eyes, from ministry chambers to the colonial outpost he is exiled to in Tunis. The descriptive realism is impressive and lyrical.
Picquart was no Zola, however. We do not get an eagle’s view of French politics and society, and so the political passions and anti-Semitism behind the army’s stubborn prosecution remain murky to many American readers. Picquart’s slow realization that France has made a horrible mistake makes the first half of the book slow as well.
As a thriller, An Officer and a Spy initially lacks high stakes. With Dreyfus such a cipher and long-ago France so puzzling it’s difficult to care about this scandal.
But once Picquart himself begins to be persecuted midway through the book, the story starts to accelerate. Superiors even try to send him on a suicide mission into the Sahara desert. This is Kafka territory, with good men oppressed by a state gone insane. There is even a sword duel.
Unfortunately, the rousing courtroom climax—the “you can’t handle the truth!” moment that we all want—cannot occur because it didn’t occur in history. Resolution was a dribble, played out over several years, and the legal wrangling became trench warfare.
Picquart is a noble defender of truth and duty, but in retrospect was the Dreyfus affair more than a lamentable curiosity? Because of the novel’s point of view, Harris can’t tell us. The story becomes one of two persecuted officers but not quite a story of civilization’s ability to veer off track.
Harris fans and lovers of intellectual whodunits will enjoy this book. An Officer and a Spy is smart, literate, and accurate. But readers seeking a spy thriller that sprints instead of creeps may find themselves thumbing ahead looking for the good parts.