28. An Officer and a Spy: Robert Harris

An Officer and a Spy Robert HarrisI’ve been a bit slow with the reading recently as my ‘marking season’ has started (I am an examiner for the International Baccalaureate, currently making my way through a pile of 4000 word History research essays). Plus I’ve been pretty tired and not able to focus, no doubt because… here’s a bit of news dear readers… I’m pregnant!

Anyway, I finally got round to reading and finishing this one. I was excited about it since seeing reviews in the press last year, then my Dad got it for Christmas and then it was chosen for one of my book clubs this month. I was so keen because it is about one of my favourite periods of history, the French Third Republic which although might sound dull to most, is actually quite fascinating to me. An Officer and a Spy is about the Dreyfus scandal which, eventually, rocked France.

I feel I can be quite revealing with my plot summary as the outline is a matter of historical record. So if you don’t want to know what happens then, as they say, “look away now” but do come back at the end of this paragraph! The book begins with the transportation of Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish army officer found guilty of spying for the Germans, to the remote Devil’s Island. Not long afterwards, George Picquart, who had a small role in his conviction, is promoted to head of the army intelligence, a role he doesn’t particularly enjoy and neither is he welcomed to by his new colleagues. Eventually he comes upon evidence of another spy in the ranks, a Major Esterhazy, and it was he not Dreyfus who was the guilty party all along. As he reveals his findings to his superiors, they close ranks and begin to conspire against Picquart himself. Picquart, through the help of his friend and lawyer, passes his information to a prominent politician and it becomes public knowledge, leading to the famous “J’Accuse!” piece by novelist Emile Zola. For interrogation after interrogation, trial after trial, Picquart sticks to his story and the truth emerges.

An Officer and a Spy is a great mix of historical fiction and espionage thriller. I prefer my books to be written a little more poetically but then again, this one is long and complicated enough without any extra embellishments. Harris says all the characters, and the majority of the events, are true but, obviously, he has had to fictionalise the dialogue, thoughts and feelings of our narrator and others. For me, you don’t need to “do much” to this amazing story to make it a great book. The Dreyfus Affair tells us so much about France in the late 19th Century. It was a country hurt from their humiliating defeat in 1871 and genuinely fearful of another. This fear led to a prominent strain of fervent nationalism which in many spilled over into anti-Semitism. It is this which fuelled the appalling treatment of an innocent man. The Affair also has lessons for us today which this book highlights all too well; what are we to do when the power and authority of the state turns against us? It has left me thinking about the men left to rot in Guantanamo Bay, Chelsea Manning and the Edward Snowden case.

4 stars

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