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.
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.