After France’s stunning defeat in the Franco-Prussian War and its near defeat in WWI, no event garnered more attention or more divided the nation than the Dreyfus Affair. Robert Harris’s new book, An Officer and a Spy, is an incredibly compelling fictional account of the long-simmering scandal, especially the rabid paranoia and anti-Semitism that fueled it.
Harris, as seen in previous works like Fatherland and Pompeii, is a master of historical fiction. In An Officer and a Spy, Harris presents us with a cast of actual historical figures in an account that reads like a spy novel. Georges Picquart is a French Army officer who is convinced of the alleged treason of Capt. Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish officer accused of selling secrets to the hated Germans. As an award for his service in the Dreyfus Affair, Picquart is given command of the intelligence section responsible for catching spies in France. Although clearly anti-Semitic himself, Picquart slowly realizes two things: Dreyfus was not guilty, and the real spy is still on the loose. Picquart petitions his superior officers to reopen the Dreyfus case and give him leave to continue the investigation. The French High Command, unwilling to admit its own mistakes and face the political consequences, decides instead to exile Picquart to Tunisia. What follows is a smear campaign and eventually Picquart is defending himself against charges of treason. Meanwhile, over the decade that this story plays out, a solitary figure – Alfred Dreyfus – is kept prisoner on the remote Devil’s Island.
This 100-year-old scandal fits in perfectly with our modern era’s headlines of domestic spying, rendition and puppet trials. It is a novel that is unafraid of showing its hero, George Picquart, as a flawed human being. With its espionage and dramatic courtroom scenes, this novel will have you yelling “J’accuse!” at the power-mongers who would convict innocent men in order to advance their own ambitions.