All posts by Sukanya Ramanujan

Multi-lingual professional with varied interests such as reading, travelling, music and photography.

An Officer and A Spy: Robert Harris

It was nearly 11 years ago that I first heard of “L’Affaire Dreyfus”. I was doing my Diplome Superieur in French and one of our themes was France from 1840-1914. I think each one of us in class had to work on a specific topic for a paper and presentation and I somehow landed up with Dreyfus. I did quite a bit of research on the theme (thankfully google already existed) looking through articles, books, cartoons from contemporary newspapers and so on. I started my presentation to class with a cartoon that in fact showed a family seated calmly around the dining table. That is until someone mentions ‘Dreyfus’ and then they are all at each other’s throats- to show how deeply divisive the topic had been in France of that time. Almost anyone who’s ever heard of Dreyfus will talk about “J’accuse” the infamous open letter written by French writer Emile Zola to the President of France about the unjust treatment meted out to Dreyfus and also how the whole thing had been covered up. Oftentimes this is also the only thing that people know about the Dreyfus Affair. I was glad to have had the opportunity to have learnt more.

An Officer and A Spy
An Officer and A Spy

A few months ago I chanced upon the latest book by Robert Harris “An Officer and a Spy” in stores. I turned it around and was pleasantly surprised to find that it dealt with Dreyfus. But then that also made me doubt how good it would be- as a fiction title coming from the author who has previously written books like Fatherland (I think this was one of his best works. Fear Index probably his weakest but still a good read esp if you are travelling and need a book for a long flight), Pompeii and Enigma (with the exception of Archangel  I have read all of his books, for some strange reason Archangel is collecting dust on my book shelf).

Anyway I really wasn’t sure that this was going to be a great read- I mean a man was wrongly convicted of being a spy for Germany- there was an extra level of prejudice because he was a Jew and anti-Semitism was quite strong in France at that point- he was at the end exonerated when evidence was brought out that he was not a spy and that the real spy was someone else. Of course the treatment that Dreyfus suffered- exiled to  a small island thousands of miles away from France- condemned to rot there was truly cruel but was this whole thing really thriller material a la Robert Harris?

The short answer: YES

The long answer:
I finally landed picking up the Kindle version of the book (the price was deeply discounted and I was going to have a lot of time to kill) and gave it a go.

The book starts from the point of Dreyfus’ degradation and exile and is narrated from the perspective of Major Picquart -who is quickly promoted to Colonel Picquart and gets to head the Statistical Section – which is actually the secret service. In the course of his work Picquart uncovers the truth that the note that was primarily used to incriminate Dreyfus had actually been written by a Major Estherhazy. A person with a strong sense of moral right and wrong he proceeds to lay forth the evidence to his superiors initially only the evidence implicating Estherhazy as a spy and only later about how the two cases were interlinked. He is well aware of the opposition that he would face- a lot had been riding on the Dreyfus case- politically more than practically and reopening the case would mean opening a Pandora’s box. He is advised to keep it quiet but he feels that keeping it quiet would damage the reputation of the army if ever the evidence were uncovered and it is an institution he loves more than his family. So he keeps at it relentlessly until he is quietly exiled himself to a backpost in the middle of nowhere in Tunisia. As the momentum builds the case against him grows stronger with new evidence framing Picquart himself as a forger.

If we didn’t know the ending already- we would be quite tempted to scream and throw the book away at certain points. Robert Harris does a great job of bringing out the suffocating and unjust atmosphere whether it is the rundown office of the Statistical Section or the menacing scenes in the courtroom. You just can’t put the book away until the end.

I particularly liked the characterization of Picquart- an ambitious officer- the youngest Colonel ever in the French army- yet he is not the super hero material. He is just a normal person with a strong sense of justice and loyalty. He doesn’t go through the entire agonizing experience for the sake of Dreyfus but for the sake of justice. In fact in the beginning Picquart himself is shown to possess traces of anti-semitist sentiments. When asked by colleagues how Dreyfus looks right after his public degradation he replies “He looks like a Jewish tailor counting the cost of all that gold braid going to waste. If he had a tape measure around his neck, he might be in a cutting room on the rue Auber” . And even in the epilogue when he is Minister of War and meets the reinstated Dreyfus and says it might not have happened had it not been for Dreyfus for which he replies “No my General, you attained it because you did your duty”.

Reading this book also made me think about the whole concept of good and evil- a la Lord of the Rings and you think that good will always win over evil but I couldn’t help wondering if Dreyfus was the lucky one. He was immensely rich in the first place so his family could lobby senior figures in society and keep the campaign to free him up and running for a long time. Also a lucky stroke that the evidence came into the hands of someone like Picquart who put justice above personal ambition (at least immediate personal ambition). What may have happened to another person in his place? Even today how many people are affected by deep prejudices and malice? I was also reminded of Julian Barnes’ wonderful book ‘Arthur and George’ which also plays on a similar theme.

All in all a good book- a must read if you are interested in history particularly France in the late 1890s and early 1900s.

 

Away in the Wilderness

Out in the Wilderness

I recently spent three nights at Wildernest resort  (http://www.wildernest-goa.com/) which is about 70 km from Goa airport. The resort claims that it is located in the wettest spot of the Sahayadris range of the Western Ghats and after experiencing non-stop rain for over 80 hours I don’t really doubt it.

The location of the resort is idyllic- it feels far away from everything and the views from the rooms (the valley and waterfall facing rooms) are divine. I mean it is not every day that you can wake up to see two or more waterfalls falling like a bolt of continuous lightning down a green hill.

If you are familiar with Jungle Lodges Resort in Karnataka you would feel familiar here- you are located in the middle of a forest with only the noise of the forest for company (unless of course you are unfortunate to have loud noisy tourists staying in the next cottage). The rooms are homely in that Spartan kind of way that has at least come to mean eco-friendly. All rooms have large windows facing the valley and a huge balcony where you can walk around and take in the views.

The View from the Balcony
The View from the Balcony

 

Note however in the monsoon season, everything is damp and moist- the floors (they have put anti-skid tiles) look permanently like they have just been mopped, the bed is damp, the chairs are damp etc but this is part of the rainforest feel and you can actually come to enjoy it as an out of the world experience. From your bed you can literally see the clouds rolling into the valley and then even into your room- the dampness is a small price to pay. If you do not like damp you might want to stay away during the monsoon and visit during the drier winter months.

The View from the Door
The View from the Door

There is a fair bit to do around the resort- they conduct treks to the waterfalls nearby and to the highest point close to the resort , the plateau and so on. If you don’t mind getting soaking wet you should try these- quite exhilerating. Leeches can be a problem during the treks (not anywhere else within the walkways of the resort) during the monsoon months. I wore anti-leach socks during the waterfall trek and passed unscathed.

Some of the easy stretches of the waterfall trek
Some of the easy stretches of the waterfall trek

 

There is quite a nice looking infinity swimming pool which is fed from rainwater and water from the mountains. If all you want is some R&R though you can just laze around in your room (though be warned your choice of furniture is restricted to the bed or a slightly uncomfortable cane chair). I liked the fact that I could just walk around the compound and do a fair bit of macro photography.

Infinity Pool
Infinity Pool

Food is probably not the biggest selling point of the resort. They advertise that it is rustic fare (fair enough!) but what they don’t tell you is that they have only two menus and the only rice dish prepared for dinner is Jeera rice (we had it all three nights!). There are absolutely no snacks available if you feel peckish in between meal hours and evening tea only has a hybrid bread/ rusk that accompanies it. Once again if you are here to enjoy nature you probably won’t mind this for a few days.

The resort staff are nice- I think with a little more of training their hospitality could be outstanding.

Away in the Wilderness
Away in the Wilderness

Sailing to Sarantium

Guy Kay’s Sailing to Sarantium is by far one of my favourite books ever written. The books chronicles the journey of a talented mosaicist from the edge of an empire into the very heart of power politics. It also talks poignantly about the ephemeral nature of life, love and art- interspersed with brilliant, beautiful and powerful magic of course.

“To say of a man that he was sailing to Sarantium was to say that his life was on the cusp of change: poised for emergent greatness, brilliance, fortune—or else at the very precipice of a final and absolute fall as he met something too vast for his capacity.”

—Guy Gavriel Kay, Sailing to Sarantium

Poised on the edge of transformation
Poised on the edge of transformation

This image of a caterpillar standing at the edge wondering where to go next even as it is about it go through it’s own personal metamorphosis somehow seemed to best represent Kay’s words in an image.

Here’s where you can read more about Sailing to Sarantium: http://www.brightweavings.com/books/sarantine.htm