Friday, December 12, 2014

An Officer and a Spy

I actually thought this novel by Robert Harris would be a kind of alternate history, like his Fatherland, using the Dreyfus Affair as a springboard for an imaginative historical thriller.

But it is a dramatic retelling of the Dreyfus Affair, based on the voluminous documents and featuring the historical characters -- first and foremost Georges Picquart, the army officer who stubbornly followed the evidence clearing Dreyfus and leading eventually to his exoneration.

As Zola exclaimed at one point in the novel (who knows, perhaps he really said this), "Such a tale has never been told." It is totally gripping. Minute details of the original trial, the second trial that once gain found Dreyfus guilty and the denouement of exoneration, which might have been tedious in less gifted hands, become a mountain of clues worthy of Sherlock Holmes or Perry Mason.

It is told in the first person from Picquart's point of view, so there is no moralizing, no distance, no distractions. It is about the intricate framing of a Jewish officer through misplaced zeal and the determination of an officer, who thought Dreyfus was guilty and was unwittingly even part of the conspiracy to frame him, who was willing to put honor above ambition and follow the trail that showed it was indeed someone else who delivered those trifling secrets to the Germans, that Dreyfus was simply a convenient (Jewish) scapegoat, that the coverup of the this miscarriage of justice was worse than the crime itself.

Picquart is immensely sympathetic, though not unflawed. Dreyfus, on the other hand, is portrayed as decidedly unsympathetic, possessed of a stiff pride and arrogance that did nothing to help his cause. Both were terribly wronged by the army they loved, but both returned to service. Dreyfus actually came out of the reserves to fight in World War I and died in the 1930s. Picquart became Minister of War and was spared the tragedy of the war when he died falling of his horse.

The novel is a lovely map of Paris, each street there today as it was in 1895. Picquart meets Zola, Debussy and a host of other personalities from that period in the City of Light. The glory and shame of France live side by side in this fin-de-siecle cocoon that has such a dark underbelly.

I feel immeasurably enriched to have such a detailed understanding of the Dreyfus Affair. Its role in history can hardly be underestimated and the New York Times had a headline this week about growing anti-semitism in France. Plus ca change!

A wonderful book.

No comments:

Post a Comment