An Officer and a Spy, by Robert Harris

by Robert A. Parker

This 2013 work is a fascinating novel, and at the same time a brilliant recreation of history. One suspects that Harris felt the general public did not know the details of this famous event, and that its deception and corruption would make an intriguing work of fiction. And I loudly applaud him for this decision. Enough history has been written about the Dreyfus affair. The public, however, does not read history. It reads fiction.

Overall, this is the story of a miscarriage of justice, a plot created at the highest levels of the French army, a plot created to protect the reputation of that army at the expense of an innocent officer, a Jewish officer, in an era of anti-Semitism. And the novel is the story of how this was carried out, how it lasted for a decade, and how it nearly succeeded.

It did not succeed because of one man, the narrator of the novel, Georges Picquart. Picquart’s involvement was central to justice eventually being rendered, even though he acted in collaboration with many others. But a novel needs a central character, and, by making him the narrator as well, Harris has built a convincing case—even as his author’s note warns that “in order to turn history into a novel, I have been obliged to simplify, to cut out some figures entirely, to dramatize, and to invent many personal details.”

What makes this novel so convincing is the detail. We begin with the formal ceremony, in public, denouncing Captain Dreyfus as guilty. Major Picquart is present as a trusted aide of the French plotters, and is promoted to colonel and head of the army’s Statistical Section, a counterintelligence agency, with the assumption that he will be loyal to his superiors.

The Statistical Section has handled the Dreyfus case; and, at first, Picquart assumes Dreyfus’ guilt. But then he learns more and more about the evidence against the captain, and begins having doubts. He reads Dreyfus’ personal letters and his protestations of innocence. Then…a lover gossips that Dreyfus may be innocent, a torn (blue) telegram never sent by the Germans throws suspicion on a man named Esterhazy, and forged handwriting evidence against the true traitor is revealed to be not by Dreyfus but by Esterhazy. It seems he has been selling information to the Germans. Which is what Dreyfus has been convicted of. And so: are there one traitor, or two?

This is the beginning of Picquart’s effort to learn the truth. Who is the traitor? Why has Dreyfus been convicted? How much involved is the hatred of Jews? Is the evidence against Dreyfus sound? If not, who in the army has manipulated the evidence? And why? As Picquart seeks the answers to these questions, as he doubts the evidence against Dreyfus, the novel becomes more and more fascinating.

But this novel of espionage is also history. And is complicated by the era’s anti-Semitism, as well as by an army leadership which fabricates evidence in order to preserve careers and reputations. It is made credible by its portrait of Picquart, an honest and compassionate officer who gradually comes to believe the evidence that Dreyfus is innocent and Esterhazy is guilty, and who then duels with the army and the political establishment to prove his case. The odds, and the army, are stacked against him, as is even his own aide, Major Henry, but he perseveres. And as he endures defeat after defeat, and false evidence after false evidence, the suspense builds.

But unlike Maslin in the Times, I was more intrigued by the slow build-up, by the early “stream of discoveries,” as complicated as were the description of the forgeries, than by the later efforts to curtail Picquart’s allegations and to silence him—even exiling him to Tunisia. The repeated judicial reversals he endures, all under control of the army, do seem inevitable. But then there is a final political reversal—unexpected in the novel’s terms, I think, because Picquart has no role in the public’s growing awareness of the injustice. And the novel is stuck inside his viewpoint.

Louis Begley writes in his Times review that, as a result of Picquart being the narrator, “the focus is necessarily too narrow, failing to take in the historic background.” While I agree that something is lost at the end, as a result, this is outweighed by Colonel Picquart’s early presence. It is his personal involvement that gets the reader involved. That lends reality to the slow accumulation of details. Meaning Harris has sacrificed history for the sake of making the events come alive.

On picking up this novel, I thought the title referred to Dreyfus, who was an officer and was accused of being a spy. But now I think the word Officer refers to Picquart, who is the novel’s hero, and the word Spy refers, by using the “a,” to both the accused and the actual spy. This stems from my conviction that Harris made the right choice in telling this story through the eyes of Picquart. For just as he is slowly convinced by the compilation of evidence—and through him so is the reader—so does the reader understand why he is ready to sacrifice his career in the interest of justice.

The characterization of Picquart himself, however, is less effective. Despite his love affairs with the married Pauline and others, he does not come across as more than two-dimensional. He and Harris are too focused on the Dreyfus affair to allow significant personal complications to enter. And the other characterizations, of the army leadership, are even one-dimensional. They exist mainly as pro-Dreyfus, very few, or anti-Dreyfus. The overall portrayal is of corrupt army leadership, but individual motives are not evaluated. No one’s conscience is explored. Nor are any doubts that Picquart may have in taking a stand that may mean the sacrifice of his career.

To sum up, this is another case of Harris making the past come alive, of placing the reader in another era by having him identify with a real participant of that era. And by confronting the reader with that character’s daily decisions. The secret to making history come alive in fiction is focusing with a close-up lens rather than a panoramic lens. The panoramic lens is for the historian. I would hope that Harris might take this approach again—such as with the origins of the Russian Revolution. (November, 2016)