e a m harris

Roaming the byways of literature

The Dreyfus affair from a different angle

9780099580881I’ve enjoyed several of Robert Harris‘ historical thrillers and An Officer and a Spy was no exception. His stories take place over a wide range of space, time and subject: this one is fin de siècle France and the Dreyfus affair.

I suppose that most people will have heard of this major miscarriage of justice. I had a vague idea that Alfred Dreyfus had been wrongly accused of something and sent to Devil’s Island, a penal colony in South America, but beyond that I knew little. I now know a lot more. As a story of amorality, corruption and sheer wickedness it takes some beating. It is also a story of the power of the press and public opinion and seems very modern for that reason.

The central character is Georges Picquart, head of the French counter-espionage (called the Statistical Section). He is present when Dreyfus is thrown out of the army, in which he was an officer, for allegedly selling secrets to the Germans. Later, in his counter-spy role, Picquart discovers that Dreyfus was innocent and another man was the traitor. He gathers evidence and tries to present it to his superiors. But they are at first not interested and later actively hostile. Picquart has stumbled on corruption and cover-up at the heart of government and suffers for his attempts to put things right.

Although there is little actual violence there is no doubt that Picquart is in increasing danger as he refuses shut up and go away.

Picquart was a whistle-blower who seems to have spent some time trying not to be. I think we would recognise him today more easily than his contemporaries did. As an example of someone who risks his career and public persona, and even his life, to right a wrong, his story is worth reading in all historical periods.

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