An Officer and a Spy, by Robert Harris

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)


The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, by David Mitchell

This highly imaginative 2010 novel is far different from Cloud Atlas. There is one setting, Nagasaki, one time frame, around 1800, and one hero, Jacob de Zoet. It offers a rich blend of romance, adventure, and international intrigue in this story of Western vs. Eastern love, slavery vs. freedom, isolation vs. global trade, and a closed vs. an open society, plus the ramifications of murder and revenge, corruption and integrity, and justice and death.

Jacob de Zoet is a Dutch clerk who commits himself to five years in the Orient in order to earn his fortune and be able to marry a Dutch woman back home. But events conspire to keep him on the Dutch island enclave of Dejima, next to Nagasaki. He falls in love with a disfigured midwife, Orito, and fails to act when he sees her kidnapped. Eventually, the guilt he feels will guide has subsequent actions and enforce his later integrity.

Because Jacob has been sent by the Dutch East Indies Company to end the corruption at the outpost and to straighten its books, he becomes involved in the political intrigue there and its power players. As a result, he makes many enemies, and is even demoted when he refuses to accept the corruption of the departing chief. But he does find one friend in Doctor Marinus, a Dutch doctor who was training Orito before she was kidnapped.

Meanwhile, the reader follows the kidnapped Orito to a temple where she helps other kidnapped women give birth to babies that later disappear. This temple life leads to two brilliant scenes. In one, the better, Orito contrives to escape, only to turn back in order to help a close friend through a difficult birth. In the other, her Japanese suitor attempts to storm the temple with a band of armed men, only to be betrayed. His is the first of the deaths that will flavor this romantic tale with a dose of reality.

Reality also includes a conflict between the Dutch and Japanese cultures, and between the Dutch and British empires. The cultural conflict is more significant in literary terms, as it involves tradition vs. innovation and fate vs. risk. The tradition and fate come from the Japanese culture, a culture the author experienced when he himself taught for many years at Hiroshima. (Was it fate when he discovered the actual Dutch island redoubt at Nagasaki?)

The cultural clash is re-enforced by amusing sidebar conversations among de Zoet, who is learning Japanese, and various translators. In this way, Mitchell continually reminds us that his Western and Eastern characters have such different ways of looking at the same world.

That world also includes the rivalry between the Dutch and British empires, which is brought to a head when a British warship enters Nagasaki harbor with the intent of taking over Japan’s trade agreement with the Dutch. We board the English warship Phoebus and witness the political and military maneuvering of its crew and its Captain Penhaligon. There is also a debate, as in the Dutch enclave, about the integrity of their strategy, which is resolved here somewhat arbitrarily when the captain sees in the courageous de Zoet the image of his own late son.

This is the climax of the novel, which then winds slowly down, revealing the eventual fate of the surviving characters. It is a routine ending that has been the product of a vivid imagination and a fascinating exploration of the contrast between cultures and the different values in those cultures.

Several years ago, Mitchell said in an interview: “My intention is to write a bicultural novel, where Japanese perspectives are given an equal weight to Dutch/European perspectives.” He has certainly done so here, especially when he takes us from the rooms of the Dutch enclave and the cabins of the English warship to the halls of both the villain and the Japanese magistrates. There is a blend of the fantasy of a storyteller and the realism of a historian.

Mitchell has also written: “One of the questions I always try to keep in the front of my mind is to ask why would anyone want to read this…People’s time, if you bought it off them, is expensive. Someone’s going to give you eight or ten hours of their life. I want to give them something back, and I want it to be an enjoyable experience.” And this he certainly achieves in this flowing and fascinating story of an innocent Dutchman encountering corruption, then love, then integrity, and finally courage in a foreign world with a far longer perspective toward life than exists in Western culture. Indeed, the title that refers to the thousand autumns of Jacob also refers to the perspective with which Japan regards its own history—and perhaps to Jacob’s identification with that history.

To sum up, this story of Westerners struggling to survive in a Japanese world of different values is a marvelous achievement. It also required considerable research to bring that Japanese world alive. For it is a world of isolation, cruelty, and fate, and yet a world of decorum and mystery.

It is also a world of fantasy, especially the temple of sacrificed children, as well as a world of reality, such as the English warship that actually entered Nagasaki harbor—although, historically, a few years later. But this later point demonstrates how Mitchell used his research and actual history in order to make real not only the action of this novel but also the cultural context of this strange world in which that action takes place. One critic calls this novel, “the triumph of decorum and honor in a world of corruption and perversion.” It is true, if you understand that the decorum and the perversion belong to both cultures.

As Nathan Weatherford notes in his review, “By methodically showing us at the outset of the novel how outwardly different in custom and costume the two cultures are, he makes the personal similarities between characters on each side of this cultural divide that much more apparent in subsequent chapters, [as] the choices made by characters from each culture all hinge on the same basic fears and loves.” He also calls the “intricately structured” international relations, “a metaphor for the inner struggle going on in each character’s soul.”

This work achieves all of that, blending history and imagination, romance and reality, innocence and evil, and the justice of fate. (November, 2015)

The Signature of All Things, by Elizabeth Gilbert

One senses on the very first page of this 2013 novel that Gilbert is a master of the novel’s craft. After introducing the birth of her heroine, Alma Whittaker, she says: let’s give her time to grow up. And so, instead, she tells the story of Alma’s rich Philadelphia father, Henry Whittaker, who was raised in poverty in England.

And one thinks: Oh, no. But immediately, we begin a fascinating tale of this poor lad whose father teaches him all he can about plant life. And then a rich patron sends the boy abroad, first, with the last expedition of Captain Cook to the Pacific, and, second, on an exploration of Peru. There, Henry encounters the cinchona bark that contains a cure for yellow fever. It is the bark that will be the source of quinine, and it will make Henry rich.

Even as Alma is introduced at age five, the novel continues more as narration than as drama. This was understandable when offering a summary of Henry’s life, but it also seems reasonable when Alma is young and less able to think and act on her own. But we do wonder if this narrative approach will continue.

But it does not. As Alma grows older, she develops her own instincts, and her scenes amid Philadelphia society are dramatized. Thank goodness! Interest comes from two young friends, Prudence and Retta, each taken into the Whittaker household under different circumstances—and both eventually marrying, somewhat to Alma’s distress. Meanwhile, she grows at 21 or so into a respected scientist, focusing on the study of moss.

And then, suddenly, the book jumps ahead 25 years. Alma is 48 and still unmarried, and we are less than half-way into this novel. So, we wonder, what interest we will find in this tall, large, plain-looking, middle-aged woman? Answer: romance. It enters in the form of Ambrose Pike—and culminates in the most unusual sex scene in literary history. It seems Ambrose is a genius at drawing flowers; and Alma, seeing a colleague as interested in botany as herself, is happy with him like with no other person. Although, when she suggests marriage, he is a different kind of cat—or should we say a different kind of angel? And, inevitably, they part.

The final portion of the novel begins as Alma, disillusioned with her marriage, takes a Boston whaler around Cape Horn and across the Pacific to Tahiti, where her husband had earlier been banished. He had gone there to use his skills to portray more of nature. It is a marvelously created sea voyage for Alma, this middle-aged woman, as she survives both the male world of sailors and the ferocious power of nature. While this represents a remarkable transition to a vastly different world, the early Tahiti scenes lack the solidity of the Philadelphia setting, because Alma does not understand the language, the customs, or the culture of these natives.

Finally, however, she has a mission. It is to find the Boy whose figure her husband drew and who appeared to inspire his final days. But when she finds the Boy, he seems too perfect, too self-possessed to be real. He seems also, to the reader, to be a tool Gilbert uses to bring an end and a fulfillment to Alma’s Tahiti experience. Note it also brings a moment of sex that harkens back to her youth, but its symbolic intent does not for me enhance or enlarge her portrait.

Alma leaves Tahiti finally, and decides to settle in Amsterdam with the family of her dead mother. Here, as she lives her final decades, the novel’s meaning comes to the front, and Alma’s human experiences recede into the background. For on her voyage home, she has written an essay in which she draws on her study of mosses to explain her interpretation of nature itself. Her conclusion is that all life evolves and advances as a result of the struggle of living beings to survive, to overcome adversity, and to triumph over their environment.

This belief is, of course, remarkably close to Darwin’s belief in the survival of the fittest, and Gilbert draws on this scientific development to conclude her novel. For there is another scientist, Alfred R. Wallace, a real person, who has developed a theory similar to Darwin’s, and she invites Wallace to Amsterdam to lecture on his theory. It is an arrogant step by Gilbert to finalize the credentials of her heroine, who has held back on publishing her own treatise because she believes her theory has a hole—that evolution cannot explain the altruism of human beings, how people will sacrifice themselves for others, rather than try to survive them.

And now, Gilbert introduces the idea of a supreme being, an idea that even gives this novel its title. That idea is that God has left a signature of his existence in the perfectly designed things of nature, from the world of the smallest flower to that of the largest star. But, Wallace explains to Alma, he does not believe that evolution can account for human consciousness, the creation of the human mind, with its imagination and its search for beauty. He believes, instead, that there is a supreme intelligence “which wishes for communion with us….It draws us close to its mystery, and it grants us these remarkable minds, in order that we try to reach for it. It wants us to find it. It wants union with us.”

Not that Gilbert is directing this novel or her scientific heroine toward God. Far from it. For Wallace declares he is an atheist still, that by his supreme intelligence he does not mean God. And Alma herself carefully explains that “I have never felt the need to invent a world beyond this world, for this world has always seemed large and beautiful enough for me.. I have wondered why it is not large and beautiful enough for others—why they must dream up beautiful and marvelous spheres, or long to live elsewhere….All I ever wanted to know was this world.”

Which leads me to conclude that this is an honest novel, as well as a beautiful, a fascinating one. Its heroine is a scientist, and its purpose is to explore both the world of science and the role of this woman in that science. But it also allows for the possibility of a world beyond science. Indeed, such a world was suggested much earlier, by the presence of Ambrose. His was not a scientific world, and barely a physical world. Not only in his unusual sex with Alma, but also with his admission that he saw himself as an angel.

Gilbert sets up all of this beautifully with the creation of these characters. Alma, as we said, is tall, has a stocky body, and is plain-faced, and we are continually reminded of this. Because this is to be a portrait of her intellectual life, of her scientific life, not of her emotional, romantic life. And her two “sisters” are not blood-sisters, but two young woman who play a certain role: Prudence, who is beautiful, and Retta, now flighty but who will go mad. Each is a contrast to Alma, and each is to play a role in Alma’s spinsterhood. And there is also the Dutch servant Hanneke, who will explain to Alma the events of her youth that led to that spinsterhood. It is so beautifully done, because what seemed so natural from Alma’s viewpoint in her youth now becomes, we see, the author’s strategy to focus the reader on, first, Alma’s true destiny as a scientist, and, then, on the author’s theme of the dichotomy between science and religion.

This novel works not only because Alma is such a complex woman, so intelligent, so confident in her convictions, in an era when women play a family role and are given no professional recognition, but also because her world of botany is made so real and so understandable to the lay reader. It begins in the world of flowers, so beautifully drawn by Ambrose, but ends up with the world of mosses. Alma will draw her scientific conclusions as she studies why some mosses thrive in a damp environment and others in a dry environment, why some will advance on a rock surface and others will withdraw, why some will have a soft texture and others are brittle, while some will advance or retreat quickly and others will do so slowly.

We, the reader, are as convinced of Alma’s professionalism as are, at the end, her fellow scientists. And yet all this information is fed to us naturally, as Alma makes new discoveries and expands her knowledge. What we are really following is Alma’s personal life, and yet part of this life is these scientific discoveries that deepen her intellectual life and deepen our understanding of her. It is only at the end that we realize they also deepen our understanding of this novel.

The New York Times Book Review heads its front-page appraisal with the title, The Botany of Desire. This is so accurate. For sexual desire is on the surface of Alma’s life, from her early self-pleasuring to her desire for her husband Ambrose. But the true desire in her life is her desire to penetrate the world of botany, how plants propagate, how they transform themselves, how they conquer the world about them, and how moss, regarded as one of the lowest forms of plant life, does so. It is a desire that earns Alma, a woman, the highest respect of scientific society. The female species that is regarded as the fountain of desire has transformed itself from the desire for physical pleasure into the desire for intellectual pleasure.

This is truly a remarkable novel, in its scientific scope, its geographic scope, and its philosophic scope. It begins as the story of a family, and ends as the story of mankind. (August, 2015)