An Officer and a Spy is one of those I can’t wait to leave this dinner/gathering so I can get home and read type of books where you can’t wait to find out how it ends, but at the same time, you don’t want it to end because then you‘re out of the story and back to real life. A perfect summertime read. Harris has taken a historical event—the Dreyfus Affair—and created a novel from the original true story. I have to admit ignorance here and reveal that I knew next to nothing about this subject. In a nutshell, Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish captain in the French army, was accused and found guilty of delivering information to a foreign power (Germany) in 1894. Colonel Georges Picquart (also of the French army) later discovered that the real spy was still part of the French army and that Dreyfus was innocent. But trying to convince his fellow army superiors (in an anti-Semitic society) that they made a mistake and should right the wrong proves to have been as difficult in the 1890s as it is today. The French army was set on making Dreyfus a lesson to the nation that treason (especially treasonous Jews) would have grave consequences: a public stripping of his military position and a life of imprisonment on an uninhabited island. Thus, once they did this, they couldn’t possibly admit they were wrong. What would the country think of its trusted army? Its sound government? So, instead of convicting the true guilty man (Major Charles Esterhazy, a non-Jew), the army covers up the truth, tries to thwart Picquart’s investigation and is content to allow an innocent man to rot on an island. Sounds a lot like present day America. Punish the whistle-blower, sweep the truth under the rug, and go on with life as usual. The powers that be keep their jobs and the whistle-blower ends up on the streets (or in Picquart’s case, in prison).
Harris has extensively researched this event, and his story includes nearly every character from the actual Dreyfus Affair, from the French Minister of War and all his top staff to the intelligence department (including their spying maid agent) to the famous French writer and activist Emile Zola. There are 40+ characters to keep track of which can be a little overwhelming at first, but Harris begins the book with the entire list of Dramatis Personae, a handy reference that I flipped back to numerous times. As the main character, Picquart is the star of the story, and we experience this momentous event of French history through his eyes–a man who tries to do the right thing at all costs. It’s both agonizing and triumphant for him—and for us—to feel and follow his moral obligation. He’s a rather unemotional and distant man, which some might feel makes the book less dramatic than it could/should be (such as a NY Times columnist who did not offer a rave review), but I found his character remarkable. It is his very nature that allows him to proceed with the investigation. Were he more emotive, the story might have a more dramatic feel, but then he likely would not have accomplished his goal. It’s his steady nature and steely nerves that allow him to succeed. And so, in the end, we are reminded that among the very bad there are the very good. And even among the very bad we see how and why people do what they do to survive. They are not blameless, but they are also not evil. Many are merely humans making very human mistakes.
Much like Harris’s Pompeii, a fictionalized version of the last day at Pompeii before it was buried, this is a really good read. Historically quite accurate and a page turner (though not really a book club discussion book). Historical fiction.