The Dreyfus Affair. In the closing years of the nineteenth century and for decades thereafter, that notorious case was seen as indelible a stain on the veneer of European civilization as the Holocaust came to represent a half-century later. A Jewish officer in the French Army was convicted of treason on trumped-up charges and relegated to solitary confinement on the notorious Devil’s Island for several years before a courageous fellow officer uncovered the truth and, with the help of the country’s most famous writer, forced it onto the consciousness of an unhappy nation. Dreyfus was only exonerated and restored to the rank of major in the French Army in 1906, twelve years after his conviction.
Robert Harris has retold the story of the Dreyfus Affair in a brilliantly suspenseful novel based largely on historical facts. An Officer and a Spy reads more like a contemporary novel of espionage than on a reconstruction of real-life events.
An Officer and a Spy by Robert Harris (2014) 449 pages ★★★★★
The Dreyfus Affair is typically viewed as a sign of the vicious Anti-Semitism that ran rampant in France, as in much of Europe at the turn of the century. More broadly, the case is seen as a universal symbol of injustice. In Harris’ treatment, other factors emerge to flesh out the story: the rigid, insular culture of the French Army following its defeat at the hands of the Germans in 1871, Dreyfus’ own problematic personality, and the courage of Georges Picquart, the French officer who dug out the truth and defied his superiors to bring it to light in open court.
Though I was familiar with the historical circumstances of the case, I found Harris’ portrait of Dreyfus himself to be revealing. Captain Dreyfus was a Jew, a native of Alsace (seized by Germany in 1871), a wealthy heir, and had a German accent. He was viewed as stand-offish and was widely disliked by his fellow officers. Though of course none of this justifies even the slightest measure of mistreatment, it does make a little clearer why he could have been singled out as a target.
Harris is the accomplished author of nine widely acclaimed best-selling novels: Fatherland, Enigma, Archangel, Pompeii, The Ghost, The Fear Index, Imperium, and Conspirata as well as more than half a dozen other books and screenplays. I’ve read them all over the years but have gotten to only two of them recently enough to review them in this blog: The Fear Index and Conspirata.
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