Book review

'An Officer and a Spy': A chilling novel of France's Dreyfus affair

Robert Harris' novel speaks to our times in its examination of the potential dangers of military intelligence

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Ostracism and prejudice are the subjects of Robert Harris' deft fictionalization of L'affaire Dreyfus, the trial and imprisonment of Alfred Dreyfus, a Jew from Alsace-Lorraine to whom the French military did a historically woeful and consequential wrong.

Told through the eyes of Georges Picquart, head of the statistical section of the French army, "An Officer and a Spy" speaks to our times in its examination of the potential dangers of military intelligence -- and of a bureaucracy bent on policing itself so that the poison at its core never sees the light of day. As much cautionary tale as entertainment, it steps lightly through land mines.

By Robert Harris.
Knopf ($27.95).

In this case, the poison at the core is anti-Semitism: Dreyfus became a whipping boy for allegedly leaking military secrets to the Germans, who defeated the French resoundingly and humiliatingly in the Franco-Prussian War. Routed in that 1870 conflict, France was forced to give up most of Alsace and parts of Lorraine, which became part of Germany. No wonder the French brass seized on Dreyfus, a son of France's most hated former territory.

In 1894, Dreyfus, an army officer who had served with Picquart, was falsely accused of treason and, after a closed military trial stoked by viciously anti-Semitic French media, was sentenced to life imprisonment on Devil's Island, a notorious penal colony off the coast of French Guinea.

Four years later, after evidence that a dissolute, scheming major, Charles Esterhazy, was the true culprit, Dreyfus was released. In 1906, he was reinstated into the French military.

Mr. Harris, who has written other historical novels including "Fatherland" and "Pompeii," has dramatic material to work with. He ramps it up effectively by making Picquart, rather than the phlegmatic Dreyfus, the hero of this complicated book, as much a psychological study as it is a thriller.

Adept at making history malleable, Mr. Harris takes the reader through the French military bureaucracy, skewering the bilious would-be dandy Colonel Armand du Paty de Clam, Picquart's treacherous statistical section "colleague" Major Hubert Joseph Henry, and former Minister of War Auguste Mercier, a general whose prosecution of Dreyfus was a political stepping stone.

Mercier comments on the closed military trial, questioning its very existence and pointing up the issue the trial raised -- and in so doing, perhaps paving the way toward World War I: "How absurd is this? Do you imagine the Germans would permit such a circus? The Kaiser would simply have a traitor in his army put against a wall and shot." He propelled himself out of his chair and went over to the fireplace. "This is one of the reasons we lost in '70 -- we completely lack their ruthlessness."

It's a story of skulduggery including forgery, military intelligence that depended more on footwork than electronics, and shifting, shifty allegiances. Fortunately, Mr. Harris has provided a list of characters at the outset, helping the reader navigate what turns out to be a devilishly complex plot. What drives it is Picquart's slow evolution into a man of conscience, at least as concerned with morality as with duty.

Mr. Harris writes well, developing his characters patiently and describing scenes vividly. He can be vicious. Here, Picquart (who has secrets himself) keeps tabs on the woman he's having an affair with: "I look down to the far end of the table, to where Pauline is listening to Isabelle's banker husband, a man whose pedigree breeding has given him an appearance so refined that it is almost foetus-like, as if it were an error of taste even to emerge from the womb."

If you recoil at evidence of such literary talons, be prepared: the ending of this elegant fiction, in which Picquart finally comes face to face with Dreyfus, his nemesis-turned-inspiration, hits more than one nail on the head.

Carlo Wolff is a reporter for the Cleveland Jewish News.

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