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Based on the true story of Alfred Dreyfus, a French military officer convicted of spying for the Germans in the late 19th century, the book begins with Dreyfus’ humiliation as he is stripped of his rank and military honours in front of his army colleagues and a baying, jeering public crowd. With Dreyfus sent off to Devil’s Island and kept in almost total isolation, the matter was officially considered closed. However as suspicions began to emerge that he was not the spy after all, the army and members of the government began a cover-up that would eventually destroy reputations, wreck careers and even lives, and change the political landscape of France. This fictionalised account is based on the verifiable facts of the affair and, as far as I know, sticks pretty closely to them.
We are given the story as the first-person account of Major Georges Picquart. Having been the Minister of War’s eyes and ears during the trial and Dreyfus’ subsequent ‘military degradation’, Picquart is then appointed to the post of head of the ‘Statistical Section’ – a euphemism for the spy branch of the army. Convinced at first of Dreyfus’ guilt, he becomes concerned when evidence comes to light that indicates a different source for the leaks to the Germans. On drawing this to his superiors’ attention, he is ordered not to pursue the matter. However his conscience won’t allow him to let the matter rest there and soon he is part of the ‘Dreyfusards’ – the informal group of artists, liberals and thinkers who are campaigning for the case to be re-opened.
This is a fascinating story in real life and Harris succeeds in making it just as interesting in a fictionalised form. The book is lengthy and allows him to examine the various different aspects of French society that made the case both so complex and so significant. At a time when France was still suffering the shame of losing Alsace-Lorraine to the Germans and with the fear of a future war never far from the thoughts of the politicians, Dreyfus, as a Jew and something of a misfit in the army, was the ideal scapegoat. But the real interest is not in the conviction, but in the conspiracy to cover up the mistakes of the original investigation, and the extreme lengths to which those in power were willing to go to ensure that the verdict of guilty would stand.
We get a clear picture of the status of the army and the generals’ influence on the politicians. We see how both anti-German sentiment and anti-Semitism played their part in the affair, though I felt that Harris rather played down the former in order to somewhat over-emphasise the latter in his telling of the tale. Harris shows the underlying political divide in French society that evolved into Dreyfusard and anti-Dreyfusard movements – leaving the man himself as something of a pawn in the midst of a struggle that had grown well beyond the simple matter of his guilt or innocence. But Harris manages to humanise Dreyfus by letting the reader see some of the correspondence between him and his wife during his captivity and by telling us of the physical and mental hardships he was subjected to.
Well written and thought-provoking, my only real criticism of the book is that Harris has jumped on the fashionable bandwagon of using the present tense – a fashion I truly hope comes to an end fairly soon – and this reads even more clumsily because it’s also a first-person account. I know authors think the present tense gives immediacy to a narrative, but it rarely does in actuality and, for me at least, didn’t at all in this one. There’s very little ‘action’ and the tense doesn’t suit a story that is stretched over more than a decade and is obviously being told retrospectively. However, Harris handles the device as well as most and better than many, and despite it the book is a very interesting and human account of this momentous event in French history. Although I was aware of the basic facts of the affair, the book gave me a much clearer idea of the personalities and politics involved, while, by concentrating on Picquart’s story, Harris avoided the pitfalls of making it overly preachy or impersonal. And his account is detailed enough that the book would be equally enjoyable to someone who doesn’t know about this episode – perhaps more so in fact since there would then be an element of suspense (which I have done my best not to spoil). Highly recommended.
I was inspired to read this book as a result of this review from Lady Fancifull. Thanks, LF – yet another in the long list of great books you’ve introduced me to!
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Random House.