Friday, March 27, 2015

An Officer And A Spy,204,203,200_.jpg 

L'Affaire Dreyfus consumed French politics and society for twelve years from 1894 to 1906 terribly exacerbating existing political fault lines in the country.  In 1894 Captain Alfred Dreyfus, a French Jew whose family left Alsace after the Germans annexed it in the wake of the 1870-1 Franco-Prussian War was accused of delivering French military secrets to the Germans, tried by a court-martial, found guilty, sentenced to life imprisonment for treason (based on secret evidence that neither he nor his counsel ever saw or even knew about) and sent to Devil's Island off the coast of French Guinea in South America where he was kept in solitary confinement.  The prosecution and conviction also lit a fire under the smoldering anti-Semitism of French society.
Through a long, complex, implausible and almost theatrical chain of events the case against Dreyfus collapsed, causing a huge scandal for the French army and its supporters.

THC read some accounts of the affair but they were rather dry and the very complexity of the events drained them of their drama.  Other than the bare outlines, the final outcome and Emile Zola's J'Accuse, (published in 1898 and causing Zola, a Dreyfus supporter, to flee to exile in England to avoid imprisonment after being convicted of libel) THC remembered very little of the matter.
However, THC just finished reading An Officer And A Spy by Robert Harris, a novelistic retelling of the story and highly recommends it.  Harris is an accomplished writer of historical fiction.  His first book, Fatherland is set in the 1960s and takes place in a world where the Nazis won World War II and have supposedly resettled the Jews somewhere in the East in former Russian lands.  THC has read several of his other books including Pompeii and enjoyed them all.

In An Officer And A Spy, Harris tells the story of the Dreyfus affair from the viewpoint of Colonel Georges Picquart, named chief of French counter-intelligence shortly after Dreyfus' conviction.  Picquart, who had previously expressed anti-semitic sentiments uncovered evidence of the real spy in the French army, becoming convinced of Dreyfus' innocence in the process.  After taking the evidence to his superiors, Picquart was persecuted by the army which wished to keep the matter quiet. THC will not reveal any more of the events because it would deprive readers of the enjoyment of discovering the astonishing plot twists and of saying to yourselves "Could this have really happened? It is too implausible to occur in real life!"

How accurate is the novel?  Harris writes:
None of the characters in the pages that follow, not even the most minor, is wholly fictional, and almost all of what occurs, at least in some form, actually happened in real life.

Naturally, however, in order to turn history into a novel, I have been obliged to simplify, to cut out some figures entirely, to dramatise, and to invent many personal details.
THC is far from knowledgeable about the actual events of the affair but from what he has been able to ascertain from reviews, including those by historians, Harris' summary is fair and, in particular, the incidents that you will find most astounding (and appalling) in the book really did happen.

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