Book review: An Officer And A Spy by Robert Harris

THE idea of retelling the story of the Dreyfus case, Robert Harris has said, first came up during lunch in Paris with Roman Polanski at the beginning of last year.

An Officer And A Spy

Robert Harris

Hutchinson, £18.99

The two men had already collaborated successfully on the film of Harris’s novel The Ghost and from the off this one has been heading for the big screen too.

The 1894 Dreyfus case – in which a Jewish officer in the French army was convicted, on forged evidence, of selling secrets to the Germans, and sentenced to a lifetime’s solitary confinement before a retrial five years later overturned the verdict – is still relevant to today’s world. Harris has opted to tell the story through the eyes of the man who, more than any other, eventually won justice for Dreyfus: Major, later Colonel, Georges Picquart.

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Picquart, a punctilious officer, attended Dreyfus’s initial court-martial as an observer for the minister of war and believed in his guilt. When he was subsequently made chief of military intelligence, however, he discovered a German embassy document establishing that the traitor was not Dreyfus but a certain Major Esterhazy.

Picquart pursued the truth tenaciously, despite the conspiracy of military commanders who had framed Dreyfus and had him relieved of his post, arrested and even charged with forging the document implicating Esterhazy.

Harris has cast the book as Picquart’s own secret account of the Dreyfus affair, as if it might have been placed in a bank vault in Geneva with instructions that it should remain sealed until a century after his death . To give it immediacy it is written not just in the first person but (improbably for the date) the present tense.

Harris is committed to the belief that you can get at a truth as a novelist in a way you can’t as an historian – and he does give us the look, sensations, sounds and smells as no historian could.

What even this anchoring in the present can’t achieve is the creation of much suspense, but the result is accomplished and highly enjoyable none the less. n

David Sexton