An Officer and a Spy

Robert Harris's novel about the Dreyfus affair of the 1890s is a perfect story for the age of WikiLeaks and Edward Snowden.

An Officer and a Spy, by Robert Harris, Knopf Doubleday, 448 pp.

For those who may be fuzzy on their history, let’s get this much straight right up front: don't think “Fifty Shades of Grey.” The Dreyfus affair is not that kind of affair.

Instead, the Dreyfus affair was an infamous spy scandal of the 1890s, a court case fueled by the black-and-white paranoia of the French government. It made international headlines as accusations mounted against a 35-year-old French officer for sharing military secrets with Germany.

Alfred Dreyfus, who not coincidentally happened to be Jewish, was imprisoned in horrid conditions as a result of the investigation. He was, it turned out, improperly accused and convicted, framed by military and intelligence officials panicked and prejudiced by the humiliation and suspicion of state secrets revealed, secrets that were revelatory of nothing – and provided by another French officer who escaped unpunished despite conclusive evidence.

In other words, the Dreyfus affair is a perfect story for our times and for British thriller writer Robert Harris.

Taking a bit of musty history, polishing the tale and taking a few dramatic licenses, Harris’s latest book manages to be both breezy and thoughtful as well as very much of the moment. Look no farther than WikiLeaks and Pfc. Bradley Manning, who is serving a 35-year prison term for disclosing classified military documents in 2010 regarding the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. (Manning declared himself of transgender last summer and changed his name to Chelsea.) And, even more recently, the former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden, a whistle-blower/leaker who remains in Russia under protection from the US after disclosing American surveillance tactics, including extensive online and smartphone snooping of millions of citizens, last year.

Colonel Georges Picquart and Dreyfus, as well as the top political and military leaders in France during the 1890s, knew the moral hazards of such terrain well.

For 12 years, Dreyfus and, eventually, Picquart fought to clear their names of charges of treason and revealing military secrets, respectively. Picquart, much like Manning and Snowden, engendered fierce opposition in part because of his role as an insider who offered harsh critiques of his own government and the people running it. To be sure, there are many differences, too, but each episode centers on the philosophical struggles of a democratic government weighing national security measures against the preservation of civil liberties.

In the cases of Dreyfus and Picquart, their names would ultimately be cleared, but at staggering costs.

The machinations, the treacheries, the anguish, and the public fascination of the Dreyfus affair prove to be ideal fodder for Harris, whose thriller settings have ranged from World War II-era Germany and ancient Rome to a contemporary mash-up of financial markets and artificial intelligence.

An Officer and a Spy, Harris writes in an author’s note, hews to the historical record. Most of the liberties he takes involve presentation. Picquart, who discovered Dreyfus had been framed and unfairly convicted, fought for a second trial for Dreyfus and instead wound up ostracized and jailed. It is also important to note that he was hardly Oskar Schindler; Picquart was himself an anti-Semite, but could not bear the false imprisonment of an innocent man.

Harris wisely employs a familiar trick of historical fiction to tell this (mostly) true-to-life story: the lost account, discovered years after the events depicted.

Picquart’s fictional diary, in Harris’ creation, was written and stored in a Swiss bank vault with instructions that it not be read for 100 years after Picquart’s death.

Picquart counted Dreyfus among his students during Picquart’s days teaching at the French military academy, but they weren’t close. After Dreyfus becomes embroiled in a spy scandal that leaves him court-martialed and sentenced to a barren prison on the aptly named Devil’s Island (10 miles off the coast of French Guyana), Picquart ends up running the Statistical Section, the government arm in charge of intelligence and spying.

Harris, as a video interview on his website makes clear, shares the perspective of eminent spy novelist John le Carré when it comes to the notion of military and secret intelligence. In the interview, Harris calls most intelligence “a waste of time” but still beloved by politicians and generals.

Picquart-as-diarist conjures another kindred spirit.

“It is my first lesson in the cabalistic power of ‘secret intelligence’: two words that can make otherwise sane men abandon their reason and cavort like idiots,” Picquart writes of his early experiences in the service of French espionage.

Rampant anti-Semitism left Dreyfus even more vulnerable. During his court-martial, carried out in parade-grounds fashion before thousands of troops and bloodthirsty spectators, cries of “Death to the Jew!” and “Traitor!” rang out.

Dreyfus seemed assured of a permanent residence on Devil’s Island, a meager existence all but guaranteed to kill him at an early age. Instead, Picquart and, most famously, French writer Emile Zola kept the case alive.

In 1898, Zola penned “J’accuse!” (“I accuse”), an open letter to the president of France published in a prominent newspaper.

Zola was forced from France for a year after a libel conviction (the government pardoned him in 1899). His open letter excoriated the military and government for allowing the cover-up that kept Dreyfus imprisoned, part of what Zola called “a crime to poison the minds of the meek and the humble, to stoke the passions of reactionism and intolerance….”

As for the fates of Dreyfus and Picquart and the generals and politicians who battled over handwriting samples, reassembled secret messages, and dangerous liaisons of various kinds, well, it’s best to glean those details from Picquart’s long-lost diary.

Erik Spanberg is a Monitor contributor.

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