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An Officer and a Spy: A novel Hardcover – Deckle Edge, January 28, 2014
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An Amazon Best Book of the Month, February 2014: A spy thriller and psychological examination, Robert Harris’s An Officer and a Spy looks at the infamous Dreyfus affair through the personage of a functionary-turned-whistle-blower. It’s Paris, 1895. A Jewish army officer, Alfred Dreyfus, has been convicted of treason and is imprisoned on Devil’s Island; he has been publicly humiliated, bound in chains, banished to solitary confinement. But was he really a spy for Germany--or was his fate sealed because he was a Jew in an anti-Semitic time and place? Slowly, the petit bureaucrat Georges Picquart begins to suspect that Dreyfus--portrayed here mostly through heart-wrenching real-life letters he wrote from prison to his beloved family--has been scapegoated. As Picquart amasses more and more evidence about Dreyfus, he also must come to terms with some of his own behaviors and attitudes. Still, for all its delicious detail about the mores of Belle Epoque Paris, both social and political, this novel is also one for the ages, or at least for the ages in which powerful intelligence agencies, government surveillance and cover-ups are worrisomely becoming the norm. --Sara Nelson
*Starred Review* Harris’ instantly absorbing thriller reanimates the Dreyfus Affair of 1895 through Colonel Georges Picquart, who exposed the conspiracy to frame Dreyfus for supplying the Germans with French Army secrets. After serving as the minister of war’s observer at Dreyfus’ military trial, Picquart is promoted to lead the army’s espionage unit. Picquart immerses himself in the dark work and quickly discovers evidence of another soldier leaking information to the German attaché. When he’s denied permission to launch a sting operation, Picquart joins forces with a Sûreté (police) detective to gather evidence through an unofficial surveillance scheme. Convinced that the secret evidence that convicted Dreyfus implicates his current target instead, Picquart investigates further and finds a conspiracy originating in the army’s top ranks. In the anti-Semitic climate of this pivotal period in French society, Picquart’s insistence that Dreyfus “the Jew” may be innocent creates dangerous, powerful enemies. Harris combats the predictability that can haunt fictional accounts of well-known events by teasing out the tale through Picquart’s training in espionage and investigation, his unsanctioned detecting, and the complex intrigues he navigates to secure a reexamination of Dreyfus’ case. Great for fans of Ken Follett, John le Carré, Louis Bayard, Caleb Carr, and Martin Cruz Smith, all of whom also portray historical intrigues and investigations with intricate detail and literary skill. Also try Jason Matthews’ recently published Red Sparrow (2013). --Christine Tran
Top customer reviews
In fact, as Harris points out, all this is documented, and researched, and is a deeply shameful part of France's history. Except that what is even more worrying and shameful is that large scale cover-ups, the concept of obeying orders without question, systems protecting their own despite betraying principles of justice, and inherent racism are not endemic flaws peculiar to late nineteenth and early twentieth century France
The infamous Dreyfus affair involved a Jewish army officer, Alfred Dreyfus, who was convicted of spying for Germany, in 1895. There was certainly a spy within the French army, a man who was violent, untrustworthy, and with gambling debts and a mistress as well as a wife to support. But that man was not Alfred Dreyfus. Dreyfus was a loyal and conscientious, if not particularly likeable, officer. The question which must be asked is - was Dreyfus not particularly likeable, or was he not particularly likeable because he was Jewish - anti-Semitism was deeply entrenched in society. A culture of what we have learned to define as Institutional Racism was certainly present - but not just within Institutions
Dreyfus was convicted because as a Jew he was the automatic one to suspect, even though, right from the start, the evidence was circumstantial, and largely turning on evidence from a graphologist. However, as the expert graphologists disagreed as to whether writing was Dreyfus's or not, investigations into Dreyfus being the spy quickly became slewed to create and falsify the evidence with the sole aim to prove the Jew's guilt, rather than continue to investigate who the spy really was. Jewish, therefore guilty.
Dreyfus was sent to Devil's Island, and was the only prisoner there, kept in appalling conditions of barbaric inhumanity.
An army officer, who had in part been involved in the initial capture and prosecution of Dreyfus, Georges Picquart, had been promoted to head of the army intelligence unit. Originally believing in Dreyfus' guilt, he ended up uncovering the truth, and that the conviction of Dreyfus had been a sham. However, this is only the beginning of the bizarre events which transpired. On laying his suspicions and discoveries about the real spy, in front of superiors, ranks closed against Picquart. An extremely loyal Frenchman and army officer, who also had absorbed the anti-Semitism of his society, Picquart still felt justice was the most important factor, above loyalty to the organisation or the country. In fact, how could loyalty to injustice serve anyone's interest?
In a truth is much stranger than fiction development, the inability of the army, the judiciary and the politicians to admit they had made a huge mistake in convicting Dreyfus, led to a bizarre investigation whereby anyone involved in trying to uncover the truth of the affair, - including Picquart himself, became the subject of allegations of treason. In refusing at an early stage to admit a wrong conviction, the cover-up of the cover-up got deeper, weirder and more criminally psychotic.
Harris presents the whole history of this shocking event, and his novelist's sense fleshes out what might otherwise be incredibly complicated transcipts.
Although I did know about the Dreyfus affair, mainly because of the involvement of the French realist novelist Emile Zola in publicising the infamy of the State machinery, with his famous J'Accuse letter in L'Aurore on the 13th January 1898, I did not appreciate the full depth and complexity of this most infamous, deliberately constructed miscarriage of justice.
I sacrificed a night's sleep to this book, truly unable to put it down.
As it turns out, I just finished reading a book covering a similar period in history, The True Flag, by Kinzer, which is US history at the end of the 19th century. I mention this because reading these two wonderful books, one after the other, certainly filled in some historical gaps for me - a time when the western nations were launching their respective empires and pushing boundaries. In both books we already see the virulent anti-semitism, racist colonialism, and kafka-esque bureaucratic malfeasance so evident in the frightful history of the 20th century - and beyond.
An Officer and a Spy reads like a delicate, beautifully rendered 19th Century novel. The author takes time to linger over scene descriptions, like a Hardy novel. Indeed, the seasons, the sky, the buildings, the odors, the music, the weather... the "atmospherics" are, in some way, the most vivid character in this historical novel. In fact, the people in the novel are thinly drawn in comparison. . We make up our mind about who someone is by how they behave, including the narrator. We do not know WHY he is courageous and persistent, or even very much about what it costs him emotionally. The suspense of the story takes hold, and I found that it was a page turner, even though I never really "knew" the narrator except by his actions.
This book is in essence a morality tale, as well as a source of actual history: doing the right thing, no matter where it takes you. I found it profound for this reason, and deeply moving. There is a quiet understatement to the appalling conspiracy to destroy an innocent Jewish army officer. And there is a muted, self-effacing description of the methodical efforts, mostly by one man, to fight back and redeem the truth, no matter the cost.
In our era of fake news, disinformation from the highest levels of our government, racism, and resurgence of anti-semitism, this book makes for particularly appropriate (and sobering) reading. We can only hope there are a few "Major Picquarts" in our own government service these days, who will speak truth to power before it is too late.