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Review: An Officer and a Spy, by Robert Harris
Knopf, 2014. 425 pp. $28

As one character observes in this electrifying novel, “There are occasions when losing is a victory, so long as there is a fight.” The fight he’s referring to concerns what may be the most infamous intelligence coverup in history, one that divided a nation and still stirs passions more than a century later.

This is the subject of An Officer and a Spy, not just a political thriller, but a primer on how to write one. History unfolds as it happened (mostly), and all the characters existed, which ups the stakes for the author. I’ve studied both the era and the case in detail, so while I read, I knew what was coming. Yet the novel drew me in so completely that I could hardly bear the tension.

In 1895, a captain attached to the French General Staff is convicted of having sold military secrets to Germany, for which he’s stripped of his rank in public and sentenced to life imprisonment on Devil’s Island. The army, which has conducted its prosecution behind closed doors, is satisfied, though many officers wish that the law still allowed the guillotine for treason.

One or two connected with the case wonder whether the defendant received his legal due, strictly speaking. But nobody doubts that he’s guilty, and, well, he’s Jewish and has money, so to them, he’s doubly suspect. France has long been a hotbed of antisemitism–the word dates from the 1880s, of French coinage–and the army takes it on faith that Alfred Dreyfus was born to be a traitor.

Colonel Georges Picquart, 1906 (Courtesy Wikimedia Commons; public domain in the United States)

Colonel Georges Picquart, 1906 (Courtesy Wikimedia Commons; public domain in the United States)

Major Georges Picquart, who narrates the novel, is no exception, a career officer of impeccable credentials who believes fervently in the army he has served for almost twenty-five years. What’s more, he remembers Drefyus, whom he taught at the war college and never warmed to–the condemned man is priggish and arrogant, plainly ambitious, not above currying favor. For his minor role in the arrest, the prosecution, and the degradation ceremony, Picquart is promoted to colonel and given charge of the so-called Statistical Section, whose real work is counterintelligence. Even if you’ve never heard of Dreyfus, you just know Picquart will eventually run across something that changes his perspective. But you’ll have to wait, because Harris draws this process out like the thinnest, tautest wire.

Picquart, though ambitious himself–at forty, he’s the youngest colonel in the army–doesn’t want his new job. He thinks spying is dirty and loathsome, and he shudders at having to read Dreyfus’s private correspondence. But as a man of literary and artistic taste, he appreciates the style of these letters, and slowly begins, against his better judgment, to wonder whether the man’s protestations of innocence may, in fact, be genuine. Meanwhile, there’s dissension in Picquart’s office, which he at first ascribes to jealousy, but, over time, gathers there’s more to it. Just what it is, he can’t tell, until a new document comes through his hands.

I could probably tell you the whole story, and it wouldn’t matter; that’s how good this book is. It’s not just that Harris has a pitch-perfect sense of the time and place, or that he sets up reversals, the no-and-furthermore, at every turn. It’s how he sets them up, getting beneath the skins of major characters and minor, no matter which side, so that you see their motives, why they hold the principles they do, and how far they’re willing to go to uphold them–which is pretty far. So deeply does the Dreyfus case grip the country that there’s no such thing as a secret, a casual encounter, or an easy conversation among friends.

The corruption that seeps through everywhere, like the sewage that smells so rank in warm weather, all starts with a false assumption by military intelligence, responsible to no one but itself. Sounds familiar, no?

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.