Robert Harris’ brilliant novelization of the Dreyfus Affair begins in Paris, on the bitterly cold morning of Jan. 5, 1895: The disgraced army captain is led onto the parade grounds of the Ecole Militaire to suffer “military degradation” as 4,000 soldiers and 20,000 angry citizens look on.
An army general on horseback proclaims, “Alfred Dreyfus, you are not worthy to bear arms. In the name of the French people, we degrade you!”
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A sergeant major of the Republican Guard tears the epaulettes from Dreyfus’ shoulders, the buttons from his tunic, the gold braid from his sleeves and the red stripes from his trousers, then pulls Dreyfus’ sword from its scabbard and breaks it across his knee.
Dreyfus cries out, “Long live France! I swear I am innocent!”
But his words are overwhelmed by the crowd’s roar of “Traitor!” and “Death to the Jew!” He is led away to begin his journey to a barren rock called Devil’s Island, near French Guiana, where he is to spend the rest of his life for passing military secrets to the Germans.
“An Officer and a Spy” thus opens with what seems to be the end of the Dreyfus Affair, but it proves to be only the beginning of what Harris, the best-selling British author of “Fatherland” and “The Ghost Writer,” calls “perhaps the greatest political scandal and miscarriage of justice in history.”
The previous year, French officials had discovered that someone had passed secrets to a German military attache. The only hard evidence was a note that military leaders decided had been written by Dreyfus, although handwriting experts were less certain.
Dreyfus was wealthy, viewed by some as arrogant, and, above all, he was a Jew in the virulently anti-Semitic French military. He was quickly convicted of treason by a closed military court; his lawyer was not allowed to examine the evidence against him because of “national security,” a defense that governments still use to hide their misdeeds.
The novel’s narrator is 40-year-old Col. Georges Picquart, the newly appointed chief of French military intelligence. Soon after Dreyfus is sent to Devil’s Island, Picquart finds evidence that the traitor was another officer, a drunken lout named Esterhazy, who gambles to excess and spends his nights with a prostitute called Four-Fingered Marguerite.
Although Picquart has no doubt that Esterhazy is the traitor, his superiors, from the minister of war on down, make clear that the Dreyfus case is closed and that Picquart’s career will end badly if he makes trouble. (And in fact, he was posted to dangerous Tunis for a while.)
“An Officer and a Spy” brings vividly to life the many people caught up in this complex struggle. Picquart pursues the truth, loves classical music, cares for his dying mother and is deftly juggling two women, one his childhood sweetheart, now married, the other a well-born 25-year-old who is pleased to include him among her lovers.
At his office, Picquart must do battle with a wily, alcoholic second-in-command who plots against him.
The generals to whom he appeals for justice are of varying intelligence and charm, but none will endanger his own status for the sake of — as the minister of war himself puts it — “one Jew on a rock.”
Harris has read widely in the vast literature on the Dreyfus Affair and uses his literary skills to give his novel excitement and depth. Like all the great “nonfiction novels,” the story possesses an extra dimension, a special impact, simply because it’s true. Good or bad, these are real people fighting for their lives.
Although I encountered the Dreyfus Affair in school, eons ago, I confess that I had forgotten its outcome. In general, ignorance is to be avoided, but in this case, it was bliss because it turned a historical novel into the most suspenseful of thrillers. I raced along feverishly to find out if Dreyfus would be freed from Devil’s Island or
, in the alternative, Picquart was destined to join him there.
The military cover-up at first seemed all-powerful, but it slowly began to crumble. “J’accuse!” — the novelist Emile Zola’s passionate indictment of the conspiracy — still echoes through history, but its immediate outcome is less well-remembered: Zola was sued for defamation, found guilty and forced to flee to England to avoid arrest.
In a scene that anticipates “J’accuse!,” Picquart meets secretly with Zola and other supporters of Dreyfus. Arguing for the need to rally public support, Picquart tells the novelist, “Reality must be transformed into a work of art.”
Harris has done that in this mesmerizing novel. The Dreyfus Affair remains astonishing, and this exceptional piece of popular fiction does it justice.
Patrick Anderson reviews mysteries and thrillers for The Washington Post’s Book World.