Robert Harris takes on the Dreyfus Affair

 An Officer and a Spy, by Robert Harris, Hutchinson, RRP£18.99, 483 pages

“There is no such thing as a secret – not really, not in the modern world.” It doesn’t matter what your privacy settings are on Facebook, all our information is going to get out: if we didn’t suspect it before, the likes of Edward Snowden and Chelsea (formerly Bradley) Manning have rung the alarm. This is the 21st century, after all.

Or is it? The quotation above is only a fragment – and the “modern” world referred to is far in the past: It ends, “ … Not with photography and telegraphy and railways and newspaper presses. The old days of an inner circle of like-minded souls communicating with parchment and quill pens are gone. Sooner or later most things will be revealed.” It’s only 1895, and Georges Picquart is right.

Picquart is the narrator of Robert Harris’s bold new fiction, which, as he writes in his author’s note, “aims to use the techniques of a novel to retell the true story of the Dreyfus affair, perhaps the greatest political scandal and miscarriage of justice in history”.

The Franco-Prussian war had resulted in humiliation for the French; Paris fell in 1871, and the territories of Alsace and Lorraine were ceded to Germany. Over the following decades, a series of French officials were convicted of spying for the enemy. Then, in 1894, came the arrest of Alfred Dreyfus, a captain in the French artillery. Dreyfus was Jewish; his family was from Alsace. He was accused of passing information to the Germans; he was convicted, “degraded” – stripped of his rank, his sword broken in two before the army’s massed ranks – and sent to solitary confinement on Devil’s Island.

But the accusation against him was false. When it became apparent that another man – a Major Esterhazy – had written the letter on which Dreyfus’s conviction was based, the army set in motion a cover-up to ensure its error would never be discovered: Picquart was the hero who brought this disgrace to light. It is a story that, without embellishment, reveals the worst aspects of a society: institutionalised prejudice, wilful ignorance, a self-serving military.

Harris is adept at employing fiction to illuminate the past: from Fatherland (1992) on, he’s made it his business to do just that. And although there is no shortage of fine historical accounts of the Dreyfus affair, I reckon if you asked a dozen well-educated souls what it was about, only one or two could give you a decent account. Thanks to Harris’s page-turner, that might just change.

The chief liberty he has taken is to imagine that Picquart wrote a secret account of the affair; that first-person account is the text of this novel. This invention aside, he hews closely to the facts: it’s a mark of how extraordinary much of this story is that so little fabrication, as such, is required. Who would dare invent the encounters – seven years before the trial – between Picquart, then an instructor at the Ecole Militaire, and Dreyfus, his pupil? It might then be an allowable coincidence, for a novelist, to have Picquart play an incidental role in Dreyfus’s fall – providing handwriting samples, escorting him to what Dreyfus believed was a routine inspection but was the trap that would lead to his arrest. But it would then surely be going too far to have Picquart installed, six months after Dreyfus’s conviction, as the head of the army’s secret intelligence unit, and engineer it so that this newly learnt skill of espionage revealed the real treachery of Esterhazy. And yet it’s all true.

True, too, is the atmosphere of poisonous anti-Semitism that clouded French society; it is to Harris’s credit that he does not endow Picquart with what one might imagine as a 21st-century broad-mindedness. “If you are asking, Captain, whether I like Jews particularly, the honest answer I suppose would be no,” Picquart says to Dreyfus when they are both at the Ecole Militaire. “But if you are implying that I might discriminate against you in a professional matter, I can assure you – never!” That is Picquart’s creed: it costs him dear, for when he tries to blow the whistle on his beloved army, he is nearly killed for his pains.

There are a few infelicities in Harris’s account. It’s a shame to refer to a painting by Jacques-Louis David as “Imperial kitsch” on the very first page, when “kitsch” didn’t come into use beyond Germany until well into the 20th century. Cultural references can be clumsy; Picquart notes too carefully that the first bars of Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune “are the birth of modern music”. There are footnotes that would have been better integrated, somehow, into the text.

Yet these are brief interruptions to a gripping tale, its shocking power heightened by Harris’s narrative skills. It is a story that bears retelling. Dreyfus’s grave, if you wish to visit next time you are in Paris, is in the Cimetière du Montparnasse; on the stone it is marked that his granddaughter died at Auschwitz.