JUST COMPLETED A wonderfully well-written, excitingly narrated story: Robert Harris’ “An Officer and a Spy”. The story, seen through the eyes of its hero (he’s much more than the morally neutral ‘protagonist’), Georges Picquart, recounts the circumstances around the wrongful, anti-Semitic, imprisonment of Alfred Dreyfus, a French army captain in 1895. Dreyfus was publicly stripped of his uniform and his honor and condemned – as a spy- to life in a God-forsaken prison on Devil’s Island.
It is Picquart, a fellow army officer and himself initially anti- Semitic, who stumbles upon what he realizes is a web of lies, forgeries and ‘evidence’ fabricated by the very highest levels of the then French administration. As he doggedly peels away layers of obfuscation to get to the truth, his socialized anti- semitism peels away as well. But the truth, far from setting him free leads only to ostracism, exile and imprisonment.
The swift, ever- moving story begins like a cloak and dagger spy adventure and morphs mid-way through into a brilliant series of courtroom dramas, as it gallops toward its thrilling denouement.
Like the best of ‘historical fiction’, Harris’ embeds the reader deeply into the period and into the lives and emotions of his characters. They’re all there, brought to life for us: Dreyfus – aloof, stoic, despairing; Picquart, resolute, angry, often naive; the scheming Ministers of War, Generals Mercier and Billot; the novelist, Zola, outraged enough to shake the conscience of the nation with “J’Accuse” ( for which he was jailed); the many lying, devious army officers looking out ‘for number one’. And, perhaps one of his principal characters: the mob. It is their virulent, murderous anti-Jewish attitudes that form a braying and increasingly dangerous background to the action as it unfolds. They reflect the sentiment of a world against which Picquart must fight. Here is the voice of democracy at its worst.
Like the court cases that underpin the story, Harris builds his own case slowly and meticulously. Not a scene is wasted as he laminates Picquart’s discoveries, the opposition that steadfastly mounts against him, and his own complicated love affair with Dreyfus’ increasingly desperate living conditions and the always shifting sands of a precarious Franco-German relationship, to create a wonderfully textured tale.
We become one with the hero through his journey from a young, lionized careerist officer, focused on promotion and praise to a man brutalized and brought down by the very people who lifted him up. The choice he faces in this novel set in the nineteenth century is the uber modern predicament of the twentieth: close your eyes, obey the corporate code and prosper or look deeper and expose yourself to the darkness that truth can unleash.
What Picquart, the quintessential army man, discovers to his horror is the moral vacuum that exists at the heart of the corps. Truth, to the army and to the government that supports (and is supported by) it is what it deems it to be, not what it is. To the omnipotent administrators, a facsimile of the truth shaped by them is the only narrative that can be allowed to exist. It is the only sure route that can possibly ensure its own continuity, no matter the collateral damage.
IN a sense, Picquart is the Everyman whistleblower. Not unlike the ever unfolding drama of Edward Snowden, ‘An Officer and a Spy” examines the demands of conscience v conformity and the lengths the State, threatened by the truth, will go to protect itself.