In November I went to France for a couple of weeks to visit one of my dearest old friends. Before I left, I had just started reading Middlemarch and in a fit of ambition, decided to take it with me as my travel book. I think I read five pages on the plane and I didn’t read a word after that for the entire trip. On the way back in some airport or other, I picked up the book I should have taken with me to la belle France–An Officer and a Spy by Robert Harris.
Harris fictionalizes the historical events of the so-called Dreyfus affair in 1890s France, in which career military man Alfred Dreyfus was wrongly accused of spying for the Germans and not only imprisoned, but exiled to an island in French Guiana. The evidence against him was a trumped-up bit of bad business of the flimsiest nature by high-ranking French Ministry of War officers. They likely targeted Dreyfus because he was an Alsatian Jew. By chance, a French army major and head of counter espionage, Georges Piquard, discovers information pointing toward the real spy, and eventually Dreyfus is exonerated. Still, the resolution of the whole scandale took 12 years and split the nation into pro and anti Dreyfus camps. Even the famous author Emile Zola got involved as a pro-Dreyfus supporter and served time in prison for defending him.
Very specific historical events with a large number of participants must be some of the hardest to fictionalize. It’s easy enough to report and describe, but to flesh out the characters enough to move through the events as if they are happening rather than being explained takes skill. Harris succeeds at this quite well, and I was able to keep track of the characters and their relationships with ease. All were distinct and their motivations clear, though I wished that our main man, Georges Picquard, from whose point of view the story is told, had a few more facets to his personality. He so stoically and righteously pursued justice at the expense of his own career and livelihood (he even served time in jail), yet we are never shown weakness or fear. But this served to keep the book focused on plot and storytelling, rather than a character study of the men involved.
I do really enjoy Robert Harris’ intelligent and readable historical fiction. This was the second book of his I’ve read (the first being Pompeii) and I think I’ll more wisely grab one of his Rome series the next time I get on a plane or head to the beach. Middlemarch, by the way, went all the way there and back again and sits abandoned and forlorn. Sigh…
Vintage Books, a Division of Random House, 2013