I’ve just finished reading ‘An Officer and a Spy’ by Robert Harris. I can’t say I enjoyed it because the Dreyfus affair is a nightmarish tale of corruption and deceit by those in power, notably the military, but it’s a formidable piece of writing. From a conversation with the film director Roman Polanski in 2012 to the publication of the finished novel in 2013 Harris must have worked with obsessive intensity, reading what had already been written about the scandal and consulting primary sources. From this research he has created a gripping story against all odds. The outcome is already known so there can be no dramatic denouement; accounts of the evidence brought against Dreyfus again and again could have become repetitive and tedious, yet he has given the process toward that outcome the tension of a first rate thriller. The many players in the drama are drawn with clarity and made memorable for their quirks, pleasant and unpleasant. He has also succeeded in creating a visual backdrop to events, sometimes even an olfactory backdrop (I had no idea that late nineteenth century Paris smelled so atrociously of human excrement.)
It’s a sordid tale; one that could be repeated in any country in any era amongst men whose careers and politics are on the line. Not a comforting thought. The one person who comes out of the stew as a hero, is Marie Georges Picquart. His battle isn’t fought with bravado or deeds of daring-do, he even admits a coolness toward the man he fights to exonerate, but he has a dogged belief in the rightness of truth and justice, whatever the cost. He is appalled by the sentiments expressed by a fellow army officer: “He ordered me to shoot a man and I have shot him,” he says. “You tell me afterwards, I got the name wrong, and I should have shot someone else – I am very sorry about that but it is not my fault.”
This amoral attitude is echoed in the behaviour of all the army officers involved in setting up Dreyfus. All that matters to them is the good name of the army; human kindness, compassion and honesty are not considered useful qualities.