An Officer and a Spy

Robert Harris’s An Officer and a Spy, a novel based on the Dreyfus Affair, is a brilliant and audacious example of the sort of historical novel that would have been inconceivable until relatively recently. Going beyond costume drama and period effects, it enters deeply into the lives and thoughts of real people, an authorial license I believe is owing to a changed idea of what history is. In the olden days — which is to say from the mid-eighteenth century to the mid-1960s —  history was generally considered to be made up of facts. Novels set in the past were fine, but attributing invented words and thoughts to real historical figures — beyond the likes of Roman emperors, French kings, and Bonny Prince Charlie — struck right-thinking people as a violation of truth. But today, broadly speaking, history has moved from fact to point of view — or put another way, history is understood to be rhetoric, a form of persuasion, and facts don’t seem so factual anymore.

The whole matter is open to infinite argument and refinement, of course, but try to imagine Gore Vidal’s Burr and the rest of his Narratives of Empire series, William Styron’s The Confessions of Nat Turner, Beryl Bainbridge’s Young Adolf, James Elroy’s American Tabloid, T. C. Boyle’s The Circle, or Colum McCann’s TransAtlantic written before the 1960s. Impossible.

An Officer and a Spy purports to be the actual French army officer Georges Picquart’s account of the events that make up the Dreyfus Affair from 1894 to 1906. Harris’s Picquart moves through fin-de-siècle Paris, a prosperous capital city with a flourishing avant-garde movement, a happily decadent demimonde, and a rambunctious press; but this is also a city that has not gotten over the humiliation of the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 and the subsequent annexation of Alsace and Lorraine by Germany. It is, in addition, a city riven by enmities — in part the legacy of the Commune — between the conservative forces of Army and Church and those of liberal Republicans. Moreover, fear of Germany and its machinations is driving France into what will turn out to be a disastrous treaty with Russia and, of signal importance to this story, feeding an obsession with spies. Pervading Harris’s portrait of Paris is deep-dyed French anti-Semitism and, appropriately enough, a strong smell of sewage.
What became known as the Dreyfus Affair began with the discovery — from a ripped-up note retrieved from the German ambassador’s trash — that a French officer was passing military secrets to the Germans. In an army rife with anti-Semitism, Captain Alfred Dreyfus, a Jew as well as a native of Alsace (thus supposedly German in sympathies) became a gratifying target. He was especially attractive to the minister of war, General Mercier, who, in Harris’s telling, hoped that the conviction of a German Jew would be so popular as to propel him into the presidency. Dreyfus, found guilty based on secret “evidence” withheld from the defense on the grounds of national security, was subjected to a ritual of public “degradation” and given a life sentence of solitary confinement on Devil’s Island. “It is,” Harris’s Picquart reflects, “as if all the loathing and recrimination bottled up since the defeat of 1870 has found an outlet in a single individual.”

A year later, we find Picquart mid-course in what looks to be a stellar military career, now in command of the Army’s counter-espionage unit  — where he happens upon evidence showing that Dreyfus is innocent. This appalling discovery and the persistent agitation from the Dreyfus family and their supporters lead him to believe that the man’s innocence is sure to come out and that the army should admit its mistake, adhering to the “basic military principle: that we should be the ones taking the initiative, while there still time.” Met with various forms of stonewalling from his colleagues and superiors, Picquart investigates further, uncovering the actual spy and an ever-deepening conspiracy to sacrifice Dreyfus. What to do?

Harris, whose novels revel in the question of whether it is possible to be moral in public life, creates the moment when it finally gets through to Picquart — who has shown himself to be just the tiniest bit of a lickspittle — what the nature of an organization like the army really is: Those who have made their careers in it are not only stupidly shortsighted but put the preservation of the organization’s reputation, which amounts to their own power, above all else. Picquart presents his direct superior, General Gonse, with a final argument for the army coming clean and is told simply to dummy up, the general expostulating, ” ‘I’m not asking you to lie! I’d never do that. I know you are a man of honour. I’m not asking you to do anything, in point of fact. I’m merely asking you not to do something — not to go near the Dreyfus case. Is that so unreasonable, Georges?’ He risks a little smile. ‘After all, I know your views on the Chosen Race — really, when all is said and done, what does it matter to you if one Jew stays on Devil’s Island?’ ” Gonse’s risking that little smile, so suggestive of the sickening undertow of attempted co-option, is typical of Harris’s genius for conveying the texture of the fleeting situations of which history is made.

Picquart eventually suffers the fate of whistleblowers, even to our own day, and is thrown into prison. The dark irony of the other developments is almost incredible, in the novel and in reality: The army, forced to bring the actual spy to trial, determinedly finds him not guilty despite all evidence to the contrary. (To do otherwise would, perforce, exonerate Dreyfus and demonstrate the army’s blunder at best, perfidy at worst.)  Dreyfus, tried for a second time, is once more found guilty, on no credible evidence.

After all this and in the face of growing anti-Semitic popular opinion, it approaches a miracle that the efforts of the Dreyfus family, Émile Zola, and the rest of the “Dreyfusards” prevailed and Dreyfus was released. Even knowing this from history doesn’t reduce the narrative tension or  make it seem in the least inevitable. Dreyfus’s freedom came first on the expediency of a “pardon,” and he was later fully exculpated, though never reinstated to what his military rank would have been had his life and career not been so grotesquely interrupted.

Harris’s appetite for intrigue is evident throughout this deeply researched novel, as is his sardonic wit and his gift for plumbing the temper of personal encounters. He brings the story to an end in 1906 with an interview between Dreyfus, who has endured so much with so much dignity, and Picquart, fully restored, promoted to general, and elevated to the position of minister of war. In this concluding scene, which I shall leave you to discover and savor in all it bleakness, Harris adds a little tarnish to Picquart’s halo and captures perfectly, as he does in so many of his novels, the canny, hard-nosed political animal.

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