An Officer and a Spy by Robert Harris (2013)

At some point I seem to have ceased to be an army officer and become a detective. I pound pavements. I interview witnesses. I collect evidence. (p.185)

The Dreyfus Affair

In December 1894 the French Jewish army officer, Captain Alfred Dreyfus, was tried and found guilty of passing French military secrets to the Germans and packed off to Devil’s Island, where he served five years penal servitude in gruelling conditions. But in 1896 evidence began to come to light suggesting the real spy was someone else, and implying that Dreyfus was the victim of a shabby kangaroo court, a victim of the widespread anti-Semitic and anti-German mood of the army. (Not only was he a Jew, he was a rich Jew, moreover his family came from the eastern province of Alsace, which France had lost to Germany in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, and had stayed there instead of fleeing the enemy, as ‘good patriots’ had done.)

Slowly pressure mounted for a retrial and the Dreyfus case became a lightning rod for the divisions which had divided France since the 1789 revolution – with right-wing, pro-Army and generally Catholic forces on one side, convinced there was some German, Jewish conspiracy to undermine France and her patriotic virtues – opposed to liberal, freethinking, anti-militarists on the other side, equally convinced the whole thing was a travesty of justice, an example of military high-handedness, a blatant cover-up of incompetence at the highest levels.

The whole affair dragged on for over a decade, with Dreyfus released from Devil’s Island and accepting a pardon in 1899 but battling on to establish his innocence, securing a re-investigation in 1903, then a retrial in 1904, which led to his complete exoneration and his restoration to the army with the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel in 1906.

Harris has written a long, detailed and gripping recreation of the affair. It opens dramatically with Dreyfus being paraded in front of a baying mob of 20,000 Parisians and several army divisions, having his conviction publicly read out, his epaulettes torn off, his sword smashed in two, then dragged off to prison and a long sea voyage to his incarceration in the hellhole of Devil’s Island.

Georges Picquart

Harris has soaked himself in the history of the affair and the culture of the period – as the Afterword listing the works of reference he used amply indicates – and he manages to involve us in the convoluted series of conspiracies and investigations, which helps to make this book itself his longest (at 478 pages).

I was daunted by this sheer size and by the notorious complexity of the subject matter, but ended up being so gripped by Harris’s treatment that I read it late into the night and ended up wondering if it might be his best, and most gripping, novel – which is saying a lot after the compelling thrills of Fatherland, Archangel and Enigma.

It is a minor miracle (partly indebted to the historical facts, partly to Harris’s grasp of its complexity) that he has managed to identify and use the consciousness of just one first-person narrator to take us through the elaborate events and legal processes which is what the affair consists of.

This central character is Major (soon to be promoted Colonel) Georges Picquart, a bachelor of 40, who was a real historical figure right at the heart of the affair – present at Dreyfus’s arrest, tasked with reporting the first, secret, trial directly to the Minister for War, as a result promoted to head the Statistical Section (a secret intelligence section of the army’s intelligence division, the Deuxième Bureau) which had in fact gathered much of the evidence used against Dreyfus.

Here he slowly assembles the documents, the forgeries, the testimony from witnesses, which gradually cohere to suggest that Dreyfus was not guilty, that the real spy passing secrets to the German military attaché, von Schwartzkoppen, was an arrogant, loose-living officer named Major Ferdinand Walsin Esterhazy, and that Dreyfus was elaborately framed by a cabal of officers and their superiors who wanted to find a scapegoat and hush up the initial spying allegations quickly with oh what dire and unintended consequences.

Thus we witness all the key opening scenes through Picquart’s eyes – Dreyfus’s arrest, trial, and his big set piece humiliation in front of baying crowds. Because of Picquart’s position he also reads the pitiful correspondence between Dreyfus – with its harrowing descriptions of his solitary confinement in the tiny rocky islet in the Atlantic – and his poor wife, Lucie, left looking after their two young children. Picquart’s superiors are the Head of the Deuxième Bureau, of the General Staff and the War Minister himself, who we get to observe close up on numerous occasions, just a few among the cast of scores and scores of historical personages that Harris brings to life with astonishing attention to detail and verisimilitude.

And then we follow Picquart into the minutiae of the various investigations and surveillances he runs, and experience with him the sense of doubt, then suspicion, and then horrified certainty as he realises the French Army has convicted the wrong man and let the real spy go free. We follow his attempts to alert his superiors to what he has discovered, only to find them cold and unresponsive – either because they were directly involved in the original frame-up or because they realise that admitting it will expose the army to ridicule, and that the most senior figures – the head of the General Staff, the war minister himself – will be compromised.

After refusing to obey direct orders to close his investigations, after refusing to stop gathering evidence against Esterhazy, Picquart is finally unceremoniously shipped to a remote dumping ground in colonial Tunisia, transferred to an infantry brigade, and, when the result of his investigations start to leak into the newspapers, becomes an outcast among his brother officers, a traitor, a Jew-lover.

After putting up with the Tunisian heat and boredom for 6 months he makes a momentous decision, returns to Paris incognito, and hands over a detailed dossier of all the evidence to an old family friend, seasoned lawyer Louis Leblois, who himself hands it over to the Vice President of the French Senate, Auguste Scheurer-Kestner.

Back in Tunisia, Picquart watches from afar as a big political and press campaign begins to roll to get the Dreyfus case reopened.

But his superiors are almost certain he is responsible for the leak and soon he is himself subject to crude intimidation and then cunningly framed by the very staff in the Statistical Section who he used to manage. He is summoned back to Paris and tried using evidence – letters and telegrams – which have all been concocted to make it seem like he himself is a dangerous spy, and spends a long time in various prisons in and around Paris, trying, like Dreyfus, not to go mad.

Meanwhile the army ransacks his apartment, exposes his affair with a married woman – thus ruining her life – sets up another stage-managed trial to incriminate him, and generally abuses its power in every way conceivable to frame another innocent man.

In the final section Picquart loses all illusions about  his enemy, and openly collaborates with a committee of the Dreyfus supporters who now call themselves ‘Dreyfusards’, including the left-wing politician and future French Prime Minister George Clemenceau and the novelist Émile Zola. It is in January 1898 that Zola publishes his famous front-page article J’Accuse, for the first time naming all the guilty men Picquart has assembled information about, minutely detailing their roles in the various fabrications and cover-ups – a historic publication which only manages to get him arrested and tried for libel.

Right to the end of these tortuous proceedings, investigations, trials, retrials, conspiracies and incarcerations, Harris keeps up the totally addictive grip of his fast-moving, factual but beautifully paced narrative. I couldn’t put it down.

Pace and empathy

Why are Harris’s novels so compulsively readable? It’s a long book – 484 pages in the Arrow paperback – but it flies by, even with its freight of historical, legal and cultural complexity.

It’s due to at least two things: Harris’s clear, readable and attractive prose, and his very canny pacing of the way the central ‘secret’ – Dreyfus’s innocence, the identity of the real spy – is revealed.

In fact, this central structure of the ‘slow reveal’ is identical to the ones he used in his earlier thrillers: Fatherland where the hero slowly pieces together the evidence which leads to the revelation of the Holocaust, Archangel where the hero slowly pieces together the evidence which leads to the revelation that Stalin had a son and heir who is still alive, Enigma where the hero slowly pieces together the evidence that there is a traitor at the Bletchley Park code-breaking centre.

The fundamental journey is the same but the pleasure is in Harris’s tremendous skill at surprising the reader with carefully placed clues and insights. Somehow Harris takes you completely into the mind of his protagonists so that, although the reader knows in advance that there was a Holocaust and that Dreyfus was innocent, we still share the same growing suspicion, shock and horror as the central figure.

Even when, by half way through, the ‘secret’ is out and Picquart is fully convinced of Dreyfus’s innocence, he still manages to grip the reader by having us so fully on the side of his hero: as he anxiously waits in his Tunisian exile for events to develop, as he journeys alone and scared to Paris, as he has secret meetings with his lawyer friend, and then through all the rigours of his own arrest, imprisonment, rigged impeachment and further incarceration.

By this stage we are nearly as angry as Picquart, not only with the injustice of Dreyfus’s imprisonment, but with the combination of crude blundering and blackmail masterminded by his craven army superiors and their pawns and agents. And this anger, and an anxiety to see how and when the truth prevails, become the driving force of the reader’s involvement.

Style

I’ve noted in my reviews of other Harris’s other thrillers, that he varies his style to suit the subject matter and period: Enigma used a prose style just slightly tinged with 1940s slang and phraseology; The Ghost skillfully captures the middle-brow, humorous, self-deprecation of an easygoing modern-day jobbing author; The Fear Index is rich with terminology from the computer science and financial markets which are its setting.

Similarly, An Officer and A Spy mostly functions with what you could call Basic Thriller Style, a curt clipped statement of the facts.

We take a taxi across the river and I pay off the driver just south of the École Militaire. The remainder of the journey we complete on foot. The section of the rue de Sèvres in which the hotel stands is narrow and poorly lit; the Manche is easy to miss. It occupies a narrow, tumbledown house, hemmed in between a butcher’s shop and a bar: the sort of place where commercial travellers might lay their heads for a night and assignations can no doubt be paid for by the hour. Desvernines goes in first: I follow. The concierge is not at his desk. Through a curtain of beads I can see people eating supper in the little dining room. There is no escalator. The narrow stairs creak with every tread. (p.403)

After a while I realised that the very fact that he is a soldier adds a slight but detectable extra amount of curtness and clippedness. He is a military man used to thinking in terms of fact, figures, orders and instructions, and a Frenchman trained in clarity and logic.

But this is combined with Harris’s marvellous gift for selecting just the right detail to convey a scene or character. There is a tremendous economy to his writing and an impressive tact: just so much, just what is needed to paint a scene, and no more.

The following Thursday evening, at seven precisely, I sit in a corner of the cavernous yellow gloom of the platform café of the gare Saint-Lazare, sipping an Alsace beer. The place is packed; the double-hinged door swings back and forth with a squeak of springs. The roar of chat and movement inside and the whistles and shouts and percussive bursts of steam from the locomotives outside make it a perfect place not to be overheard. I have managed to save a table with two seats that gives me a clear view of the entrance. (p.109)

The present

Another very distinctive aspect of the narrative is that it is all in the present tense.

It was a considerable risk to do it this, as a narrative told in the continuous present can appear pretentious or stilted in the wrong hands. But Harris really is such a brilliant and intelligent writer that it works entirely as he intends it to, by creating a permanent present in which the narrator – like the reader – has no idea what is going to happen next. It adds tremendously to the tension and anxiety of the book, continually driving you on every page to experience the hero’s doubts and anxieties.

For several minutes I sit motionless, holding the photograph. I might be made of marble, a sculpture by Rodin: The Reader. What really freezes me, even more than the matching hand-writing, is the content – the obsession with artillery, the offer to have a manual copied out verbatim, the obsequious salesman’s tone – it is Esterhazy to the life. (p.162)

We sit with him. We are holding the new evidence, transfigured by its implications. 479 is a lot of pages to keep up this balancing act, but Harris does it brilliantly.

The hero as modern man

Coming to this novel after reading a series of Alan Furst’s historical spy novels prompts the thought that what Furst’s and Harris’s novels share is the essential amiability of the central characters.

Compare Georges Picquart with Fredric Stahl, the protagonist of Furst’s 2012 novel, Mission To Paris. They are both good eggs. Furst’s hero is as immune to the prejudices of his time (the 1930s) as Georges Picquart is to those of his (the 1890s).

For example, both of them are repelled by anti-Semitism. This was an extremely common prejudice throughout Europe, at all levels of society until well past the Second World War. Harris’s and Furst’s novels testify to this, the Harris novel tracking the rise of virulent anti-Semitism as the Dreyfus case drags on. And yet both these heroes don’t have a prejudiced bone in their body. They never give in to even the slightest racist thought for even a second. Not even in their darkest moments. In this respect, they are whiter than white, politically correct. Their instinctive revulsion from and contempt for the anti-Semitism of those around them withstands the toughest scrutiny of the modern liberal reader.

Similarly, both of them are immensely respectful of women; never let slip a sexist comment, don’t belittle women in word or deed; indeed, they both have the same kind of sensuous, smoochy affairs with women that require or imply that the women in their lives are themselves highly sexually aware, ‘modern’ and ‘liberated’ ie surprisingly anticipating modern attitudes.

Furst and Harris heroes are, in other words, modern men who reflect very accurately the most advanced, enlightened thinking of the 21st century – transplanted back into the clothes of a man in 1938 and 1895, respectively. If you actually read novelists from 1938 (Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene) let alone 1895 (Thomas Hardy, Henry James) you quickly discover they:

a) thought and wrote in a much more convoluted and less factual style than we do
b) were casually racist and sexist, not to mention snobbish, elitist and intolerant, without realising they’d said anything wrong – because those were the common values of the time
c) were very tight-lipped about sex, if mentioned at all

Not only that, but Picquart is winningly cultured and civilised. Harris goes out of his way to make him a man of culture, who knows a particular Paris church is famous because Saint-Saens plays the organ there, and who attends a performance of Claude Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune conducted by the composer himself, a man who whiles away boring journeys translating Dostoyevsky novels from the original Russian.

A mark of his urbanity and his ability to rise above petty mindedness (unlike so many of those around him) is his sense of humour.

Outwardly, I hope, I wear my usual mask of detachment, even irony, for there has never been a situation, however dire, even this one, that did not strike me as containing at least some element of the human comedy. (p.355)

Finally, and – crucially – these heroes are much the same at the end of the book as they were at the start. This is what keeps thrillers, by and large, from being considered ‘literature’. The characters undergo little real change. Picquart sees a lot, and tells us he experiences a lot, but he still uses the same snappy, confident, urbane tone at the end of the book as at the start. He’s learned a lot but is still essentially the same guy.

An indication of this lack of development comes right at the end of the novel. The payoff, the epilogue, the conclusion could have drawn a number of wide-ranging points from Dreyfus’s story: for example, what it tells us about the divided nature of French society, about French defeatism before the Great War (and indeed the Second World War), about the widespread presence of anti-Semitism in even an ‘enlightened’ Western nation, and so on.

Instead of opening up into historical perspectives, though, Harris deliberately and, I think, a little disappointingly, focuses the story right down to a Spielbergesque final moment.

In the epilogue (and, amazingly, this is true) the shamed Picquart, once a complete outcast from the French army has himself ended up becoming French Minister for War, and is asked for an interview by the newly restored Lieutenant Colonel Dreyfus. Both men are embarrassed as Dreyfus, finally, after their long odyssey together, says thank you. Picquart says shucks I could never have done it without you. Dreyfus replies, ‘No, my general, you did it because it was your duty.’ (p.479)

In other words, this final scene, for all the brilliance of the preceding pages, I think emphasises the essentially simple psychology, the innocence and apple pie goodness, of Harris’s hero. He and the reader have been on an extraordinary journey of investigation and understanding – but he is as solid, noble and conscientious at the bitter end as he had been at the innocent start.

What the thriller can tell us

Thus, lack of character development is one of the most obvious drawbacks of ‘the thriller’ as a genre, even very good thrillers like Harris’s.

But that said, thriller can do lots of things which more ‘serious literature’ can’t. They can have more breadth of character, range of incident, more extreme situations. Above all the thriller is interested in violence, fear, paranoia, surveillance, suspicion, enemies and the mindset which copes with constant threat, continual alertness and planning. It exercises ‘the predator mind’. And these, regrettably, are situations a lot of ordinary literature-reading people found themselves suddenly thrown into throughout the terrible 20th century.

So many of the thrillers I’ve read over the past two years self-consciously refer to the fact that this or that situation could be straight out of a shilling shocker, or cheap thriller or Hollywood movie – as if by confronting the fact that they’re using conventional thriller clichés and stereotypes they can somehow overcome it. Harris says something more interesting. As the narrator gives his lawyer a letter to be opened by the president of France ‘in the event of my death’, he is aware of how silly the situation is.

I suppose he considers it melodramatic, the sort of device one might encounter in a railway ‘thriller’. I would have felt the same a year ago. Now I have come to see that thrillers may contain more truths than all Monsieur Zola’s social realism put together. (p.303)

Thrillers deal with people plunged into extreme situations and, for all their obvious shortcomings, people are in fact plunged into extreme situations every day, and thrillers do tell some kinds of truths, not subtle truths about human nature, maybe; but truths about the human mind and the desperate measures it sometimes has to resort to.

Implications

As referred to, Harris is a writer of great intelligence and forensic ability, a lawyer or journalist’s ability to grasp the detail of a very complex subject and rewrite it in an orderly, comprehensible and indeed gripping way.

I mentioned the economy and tact of his style, above. But there is also the economy and tact of his entire approach. Although I don’t quite like the sentimental ending when Dreyfus and Picquart finally shake hands, I do like what Harris doesn’t do: he doesn’t preach. He doesn’t draw the umpteen conclusions he could have about Dreyfus being one of the first political prisoners, or a victim of a state cover-up, or about the ineptness of spy agencies or the stupidity of so much military ‘intelligence’, or the broader historical echoes: Dreyfus was a kind of proto-martyr for what would become a flood of state-sponsored show trials in totalitarian Germany and Russian in the 1930s and in other authoritarian countries since.

Instead the eerie anticipations of later regimes are left entirely to the reader to pick up. He compliments his reader’s intelligence with his restraint. Just the use of the word ‘dossier’ to refer to all the made-up evidence against Dreyfus is enough to remind the reader of the ‘dodgy dossier’ containing the ‘sexed-up intelligence’ which helped take the UK into America’s invasion of Iraq. This and other fleeting pre-echoes and premonitions are left entirely for the reader to detect, or not.

Subtlety. Tact. Discretion. These are just some among Harris’s many wonderful gifts as an unmatched writer of intelligent historical thrillers.

Dramatis personae

  • Alfred Dreyfus, captain in the French army, Jewish, wealthy, aloof, when some documents which imply that someone is passing French military secrets to the German military attaché are discovered by the French Deuxième Bureau, he is framed, evidence is twisted and handwriting experts are suborned to blame the entirely guiltless Dreyfus, who is tried in a secret military trial, convicted to life imprisonment, ritually stripped of military honours in front of a vast Paris crowd, and shipped to a tiny rock off the South American coast where a tiny prison and contingent of guards is kept solely to keep him in solitary confinement, with no letters or books, for five years.
  • Lucie Dreyfus, his wife, Pierre his son, Jeanne his daughter
  • Mathieu Dreyfus, his brother who leads the campaign for his release
  • Bernard Lazare, Jewish journalist the
  • Major then Colonel Georges Picquart
  • Anna, his older sister
  • Pauline Romazotti, grew up near the Picquart family, now married to Philippe Monnier, official at the Foreign Ministry, with whom Georges is having an affair
  • Louis Leblois, old schoolfriend and lawyer
  • Aimery de Comminges, baron de Saint-Lary
  • Blanche de Commanges, one of Picquart’s lovers
  • General Charles-Arthur Gonse, 56, Chief of French Military Intelligence (p.29)
  • General Mercier, Minister of War, to whom Picquart reports back an eye witness account of the Dreyfus kangaroo court
  • President Casimir-Perier, president of France
  • Major Henry, official in the Statistical Section of the Deuxième Bureau, a red-faced often drunk man who, it emerges, played a key role in framing Dreyfus
  • Captain Lauth of the Statistical Section
  • Monsieur Gribelin, the spidery archivist of the Statistical Section
  • Colonel Sandherr, Picquart’s predecessor as head of the Statistical Section ie he oversaw the faking of the evidence which framed Dreyfus
  • Jean-Alfred Desverine, young Sûreté officer Picquart gets seconded to his Statistical Section
  • Ducasse, young officer Picquart sets up in a rented flat opposite the German embassy in Paris to record comings and goings
  • Moises Lehmann, forger Picquart uses
  • Guénée, Statistical Section operative who has been assigned to surveil the Dreyfus family
  • General Foucault, French military attaché to Berlin
  • Armand du Paty de Clam, instrumental in forging evidence implicating Dreyfus
  • Operation Benefactor, the surveillance operation on Esterhazy instigate by Picquart
  • General Billot
  • General Boisdeffre, Chief of the French General Staff
  • von Schwartzkoppen, German military attaché in Paris
  • Alessandro Panizzardi, Italian military attaché in Paris
  • General Leclerc, Picquart’s commanding officer in Tunisia after he is transferred to the 4th Tunisian Rifles
  • Senator Auguste Scheurer-Kestner, Vice President of the Senate to whom Picquart’s friend, the lawyer Leblois, gives Picquart’s dossier proving that Esterhazy is the spy and Dreyfus innocent
  • Colonel Armand Mercier-Milon, old friend of Picquart’s who is tasked with escorting him from Marseilles to Paris and there keeping him under guard
  • General de Pellieux, tough soldier leading the investigation into Picquart’s alleged treason and alleged fabrication of evidence against Esterhazy

Credit

An Officer and A Spy by Robert Harris was published by Hutchinson in 2013. All quotes and references are to the 2012 Arrow Books paperback edition.

Related links

Robert Harris’s thrillers

1992 Fatherland – Berlin 1964. Germany won the Second World War. Xavier March is a cop in Berlin, capital of the huge German Empire. The discovery of a corpse in a lake leads him on an increasingly nail-biting investigation into the dark heart of the Nazi regime and its most infamous secret which, in this terrifying parallel universe, has been completely buried.
1995 Enigma – Bletchley Park 1943, where a motley collection of maths, computer and coding geniuses are trying to crack the Germans’ Enigma codes. The hero – weedy geek Tom Jericho – discovers that the gorgeous, sexy woman who seduced him and then as casually dumped him a month later, is in fact a spy, stealing top secret intercepts from the base for her Polish lover. Or is she?
1998 Archangel – Dr Christopher ‘Fluke’ Kelso, a populist historian of contemporary Russia, stumbles across one of the secrets of the century – that the great dictator Josef Stalin had a son, brought up by communist fanatics in the forests of the frozen north, who is now ready to return to claim his rightful position as the ‘Great Leader’ and restore Russia to her former glory.
2007 The Ghost – The gripping story is told in the first person by an unnamed narrator, a ghost writer called in to complete the memoirs of former UK Prime Minister Adam Lang (a thinly disguised portrait of Tony Blair) after the previous writer died mysteriously. Marooned with the politico and his staff in a remote mansion on the coast of New England, the ghost writer slowly uncovers a shattering conspiracy.
2011 The Fear Index A series of bizarre incidents plague American physics professor-turned-multi-billionaire hedge fund manager, Alex Hoffmann. Slowly it becomes clear they are all related to the launch of the latest version of his artificial intelligence program – VIXEL-4 – designed to identify and manage anxiety and fear on the financial markets, but which has gone significantly, bewilderingly, beyond its money-making remit.
2013 An Officer and a Spy A long, absorbing fictional recreation of the Dreyfus Affair which divided France at the end of the 19th century, seen from the point of view of a French army officer who played a key role in the prosecution of Alfred Dreyfus as a German spy, and then slowly, to his horror, uncovers the evidence which proves that Dreyfus was innocent all along, and his trial one of the great miscarriages of justice in history.

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