“J’accuse!” says Emile Zola, on the front page of a Paris newspaper in 1898, and the headline throws France into disarray over the conviction of Alfred Dreyfus for treason. Or for being a Jew.
This novel was a great hit with the book club boys. It’s a fascinating period of history and Robert Harris digs around in the ugly end-of-century society, with the rise of anti-semitism in Europe, witch-hunts, the manipulation of documents, false reporting, corruption, whistle-blowing, the power of state intelligence. It all sets the scene for 20th Century history and has a uncomfortable resonance even now, when we should know better.
In An Officer & a Spy, Robert Harris creates a gripping story around real events. Our book group argued a bit about what was true and what fictionalised to make a racy story, which is a good debate to have, but it’s really the bigger picture stuff that’s important here and that is firmly factual.
George Piquart, who tells the story, was a French Army Officer promoted to chief of the army’s intelligence section, where he investigated the evidence used to convict Dreyfus. Piquart is not an immediately likeable character, but he is tenacious, and he picks at the facts of the case with growing suspicion that something is not right, that the wrong man has been convicted of spying. We go through the evidence with him. It’s pretty flimsy. A French spy, posing as cleaning woman in the German Embassy, finds a document in shreds in a bin, and handwriting experts (so called) testify that, because the writing does not resemble Dreyfus’ in the least, it is obvious proof of his guilt. Not sure quite how that works. On this, and other inconsequential information, Dreyfus is charged with treason, court-martialled and publicly humiliated to cries of “Death to the Jew!” Off he goes for punishment to the evocatively named Devil’s Island.
Later, Picquart discovers the incriminating writing was actually that of a Major Esterhazy, friend to the establishment. This is a major embarrassment to Picquart’s superiors, who find it far more convenient that the convicted spy should be a Jew, and they try to shush Picquart up. Things get sinister. Our man won’t be shushed, however, and Esterhazy is eventually tried, but found not guilty in a closed military court.
In launches Emile Zola with one of the most famous headlines of all time: “J’accuse!” He’s an influential writer and fighter for justice, and his public accusations against the military of false conviction of one man and state protection of another of stirs things up, but he is prosecuted for libel and hot-foots it to England until things die down.
Want to know what happens in the end?
An Officer and a Spy, by Robert Harris.