You know those historical events you should understand but don’t? The ones you try to read about but abandon when your mind kind of slides away from the confusing facts (too many names, too many shifting stories, too long a time span)? So often I encounter these incidents and think, “If only there were a novel about that, I might be able to get a grip on it.”
The Dreyfus Affair has always been one of these. Caring as much as I do about 19th century France, I’ve naturally absorbed some facts: it was a spying scandal in the 1890s. A Jewish Army officer was accused, convicted, sent away to a lonely rock in the middle of an ocean. Emile Zola became outraged and made public accusations of a military cover-up. Some other guy was proven to be the spy. The true shocker was the exposure of the anti-Semitism in French culture. What I remembered best was an image of Dreyfus’ formal “degradation” — the public military ceremony in which his uniform was stripped of every mark of rank including the buttons, and his sword was removed from him and broken. There’s visual drama for you!
And wisely, Robert Harris opens An Officer and a Spy with that very scene. What a pro he is! Let me tell you, this is one complicated story: lots of characters, lots of names, many years elapsed. Nobody is a particularly attractive personality: not Dreyfus, certainly not the Army brass that condemns him, not even our narrator, Major Georges Picquart, who is a detached careerist. His tenacity and his occasional moments of self-doubt (and the reader’s automatic investment in the first-person voice) are enough to keep us on his side, though.
I think what impressed me most was the sheer skill with which Harris tells his story. He builds scene after scene around documents (forged, translated, found in locked cases) and individuals. He gives each character enough personal quirks so we can remember Mercier with his face like a mask and the overbearing Henry and the desperately ill Sandherr. The female characters with whom Picquart has dalliances — 19th century France, after all — are less distinctive.
This is kind of middle-brow entertainment. It’s not as fast-paced as Lee Child, for instance. It’s absolutely rooted in its period and though there is a duel, the thrilling moments are courtroom power struggles. It’s also not entirely escapist. In 1895 France was only 25 years past a humiliating defeat by Germany in which two border provinces, Alsace and Lorraine, were ceded to the victors. Matters of national security were taken extremely seriously. Rules were bent. The press found out. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose?