“…I’m about a third of the way through and am finding it really engaging reading.”
Well now I’ve finished and am happy to say that’s it’s a top-notch read from “go” to “whoa.” To recap, the book is a fictionalised account of true events, the so-called Dreyfus Affair. The novel begins with the conviction of a French army officer, Alfred Dreyfus, for spying and follows the gradual realization by military intelligence officer, Georges Picquart, that Dreyfus has been wrongfully convicted. The novel covers the period from Dreyfus’s arrest in 1894 to 1906 when his name was finally cleared.
So why did I enjoy the book so much? Firstly, it addresses an historical incident I was aware of, but only in terms of superficial details. So, a fictionalized account of a true story, which—given its ingredients of espionage, conspiracy, anti-semitism, perversion of justice, wrongful conviction, the “cruel and inhuman punishment” meted out to Dreyfus during his incarceration, and the long, slow battle to see justice done—would probably make riveting reading even if it were the most bare-bones account.
In Robert Harris’ s hands however, the story is deftly told, with excellent pacing between historical events, the convincing development of an array of historical characters, and the uncovering of the conspiracy that led to Dreyfus’s conviction. I definitely wanted to keep turning those pages, even late at night when I could barely keep my eyes open, and even missed out on a movie so I could finish the book!
An Officer and A Spy is also a hero tale. The story is told from the point of view of Georges Picquart, the military officer who put his own career at risk to remedy the Dreyfus injustice. Picquart is no paladin in the heroic sense. In Harris’s narrative he comes across as a fairly ordinary man, but when the chips are down, he won’t go along with a cover up that has wrongfully convicted an innocent man — a coverup that extends to the very highest levels of the French military and political establishments. In pursuing justice, Picquart knowingly puts his own career and reputation at risk. In my book, that makes him a hero and a person who deserves to be remembered and honoured by all those who value truth, justice, and the rule of law.
One other aspect of An Officer and A Spy that struck me quite powerfully, is that the true story it recounts presents a damning indictment of all those who argue for curtailing citizens’ rights and freedoms on the grounds that “if you’re innocent you’ve nothing to fear.” Alfred Dreyfus was innocent and yet he had everything to fear—a lesson that I believe we all need to take to heart more than ever. This is not a point Robert Harris makes through the book but the events speak for themselves, both loudly and clearly.
So, do I recommend this book? Yup, sure do: unreservedly.
To read Robert Harris’s New York Times article written on the centenary of Picquart’s death, click on: