I have long been a fan of Robert Harris and was pleased to be given this novel as a birthday present. I devoured it in a couple of (longish) sittings. I recall studying the Dreyfus affair at school but these were hazy recollections at best. Having read the novel I am now seeking out a good non-fiction book on the topic so that I have a better appreciation of how well Robert Harris has integrated fact with fiction. The novel is revelatory in terms of demonstrating through fiction the lengths governments will go to in order to conceal the truth. Dreyfus was, to put it succintly, fitted up. As the author has shown in previous novels he is adept at (a) evoking a period setting, (b) creating well rounded characters like the central protaganist here, Colonel Georges Picquar, through whose eyes the story unfolds, and (c) making political machinations seem totally believable (and you only have to look at some of the more recent political scandals in the UK to draw certain parallels to those in this novel). The author's prose style is as fluent as ever, plotting is handled superbly, and the whole story rattles along. What really shines through the fiction is the author's obvious fascination with this famous French scandal. Highly recommended.
on 26 November 2013
I have always enjoyed Robert Harris's books immensely, although I did feel he had "gone off the boil" a bit with his later ones. I did not particularly enjoy the two Roman ones, and felt that both The Ghost and The Fear Index were inferior to his earlier, cracking thrillers based around real events. My husband pre-ordered this book and read it obssessively on holiday, and I snatched it from him the minute he'd finished it.
We'd both read the various reviews, which served to act as a reminder about the politics and progression of L'Affaire Dreyfus - like most reviewers, we had a reasonable idea of the episode in outline, rather than the detail. One thing I was unaware of was quite how long it dragged on and how the French General Staff perpetrated almost any untruths rather than admit they were wrong. It did seem to resonate with some current affairs, but it was truly anchored in the late 19th Century, and did not attempt to view it in the light of the 21st. It was still breathtaking in its outrage, however and totally absorbing. The huge cast of characters were so well defined and described and the appalling dirty tricks were as thrilling as any fiction - and at times almost more extreme than could reasonably be imagined. The fact that Dreyfus was not a particularly likeable character, and his defendant Picquart admitted to not caring for him personally, made it all the more astonishing that Picquart was prepared to risk his career in his cause. I found it ironic that one of the things held against Dreyfus was that he was from Mulhouse (in Alsace Lorraine), spoke French with a German accent and his wealth came from Germany, whilst the majority of the Intelligence staff in the book (Picquart included) were also from Alsace(annexed by the Germans post 1870), and all burned with a consequent hatred of Germany.
Despite the outcome being known, I literally could not put this book down, and enjoyed looking up the various protagonists on Wikipedia (unlike some reviewers I did not find this impeded my enjoyment in any way.) The variety of magnificent - and in some cases downright ridiculous - moustaches on view somehow seemed to reflect the self-regard and stubborness of the French General Staff, who refused to admit their errors and machinations even when international interest was aroused. This is a book for anyone who is interested in 19th Century history, as well as Robert Harris fans.
on 4 September 2015
What an excellent work. There is nothing more satisfying than reading a book that is well written, thoroughly researched and based on fact. Oh the joy of being entertained, challenged and educated at the same time! This is the first book that I have read by Robert Harris and I have already downloaded his first and best-known work, Fatherland.
I loved the style of writing in An Officer and a Spy. It was descriptive, but only as far as was necessary to set the scene and flesh out the characters. I knew little about the Drefus scandal before starting, and deliberately waited until I had finished the book before researching it further. I now feel pretty well-versed in a key part of French modern history.
Whilst the author, quite rightly, gave a good account of all the terrible illegal actions of the military in trying to cover-up their incompetence, there was nevertheless an underlying lurking sense of understanding as lie upon lie of French officers was revealed in a mad effort to finally sweep the last piece of dirt under the carpet. Of course, this couldn't happen - although the extent to which they nearly pulled it off was truly shocking.
My only reason for dropping one star from my rating was a slight disappointment that almost the entire book dwelt on the failure to find justice. The final victory and restoration of the wronged characters was almost glossed over in the closing chapter, despite the fact that in the end - and after a disgraceful passage of time - the innocent players were properly recognised, exonerated and rewarded. I would have loved to feel a greater sense of justice and victory as I closed the book.
Having said that - it was superb and I would thoroughly recommend this book to anyone who enjoys good writing, history and a fascinating story.
on 1 September 2015
Turning facts into fiction is given to everyone. Turning a huge body of historical evidence into a factually near-perfect and thrilling novel is a rare talent. Loved the book throughout for its controlled pace of mounting intrigue and its atmosphere of smelly Paris in the mid 1890s. Enjoyed the author’s words of thanks to his wife, serving up cheerful meals to so many of his covert book sources over time.
This doorstopper of a book is ideal for people on long missions abroad, living through long, dark winters, and everyone else relishing a perfectly entertaining, bulky page turner about the greatest French scandal and miscarriage of justice of the 19th century, the Dreyfus affair. It is perfectly researched and highlights the precarious status of French Jews after France’s crushing defeat to Germany in 1870. It was the first war where artillery was used on civilian targets. France lost 130.000 souls and its eastern provinces of Alsace and Lorraine. There and then, the victors decreed a choice of allegiance: who stays becomes German, who leaves chooses for France. Most Alsatian Jews chose German citizenship, but not all… Since 1870 Jews in France became increasingly stereotyped as shifty people without a country, unreliable in war or in a French army.
In 1894, Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish captain in the French army was arrested for treason to Germany. He was interrogated, tried and sentenced to exile on Devil’s Island, a French penal colony in South America. Did he get a fair hearing or trial? How conclusive was the evidence against him? Had he raised suspicion before? Was he a scapegoat for lingering defeatism? Halfway into the book, the purported author of the investigation has enough evidence to exonerate Dreyfus and indict someone else. This is where this reader bows out because from now on the plot thickens…
Written in the I-form, this brilliant novel follows the one person who witnessed all court proceedings from start to finish, Georges Picquart (40), quite a character with his North African and Indo-China experience, through whose Alsatian eyes this tale unfolds. The loss of his Alsace is key to the book, so is his Alsatian network of family and friends and fellow exiles. Robert Harris describes Paris as a city of inequalities, stereotypes and second loves, suffering from seasonal stench, but also as the capital of a French state and army rapidly embracing novelties like gas and electricity, telephone & telegraph and automobiles. Highly recommended.
This book is based on a true story, one which if you made it up and called it fiction it would be called far-fetched. It's astonishing to read the whole story of the Dreyfus Affair, and to read it from the perspective of the man who went through so much for the sake of his duty - to his conscience, to his profession and to his country.
Although I knew the vague outlines of the story of Alfred Dreyfus and the great injustices done him, and of course Emile Zola's J'accuse article, it is fascinating in the extreme to be able to read the entire story of what happened to Dreyfus, and the involvement of the other men in the plots - looking on Wikipedia at the Dreyfus Affair I was delighted to be able to find photos of most of the men involved, and can see clearly that the characterisations in this novel appear to be well-related to the characters that appear in these photos. I wouldn't like to speak ill of the dead, but I wonder at the way many of those involved in this whole affair could reconcile their consciences with their actions, and it's very sad to know that the anti-semitism shown in France at the time of the Dreyfus Affair was such an issue, and one that was to become larger throughout the world.
As a novel, this works extremely well - the author is a practised artist at plotting complicated stories, and I have read several of his works previously. His writing is clear and precise, and this novel is written in the first-person narrative of Georges Picquart who played such a prominent role in Dreyfus' story. This means that the reader gets to hear the story as it unfolded from Picquart's perspective, and while that means we never really, as an audience, get to hear the perspective of the others involved (down to their deepest conscious levels), we get as near as we could ever hope to get to the roots of this appalling scandalous affair in French history. I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and am delighted to be able to read such an accomplished novel on the Dreyfus Affair. I look forward to more works by Robert Harris, with eager anticipation.
This novel shows author, Robert Harris, in top form. It begins with army officer, Georges Picquart, witnessing Captain Alfred Dreyfus - a disgraced fellow officer and convicted spy - being publicly humiliated in front of a baying crowd. Picquart is ambitious but slightly naive. However, as he stands alongside the 'Statistical Section' of the General Staff, he does not doubt that Dreyfus is guilty. The Dreyfus Affair causes immense interest in France, and even the great actress Sarah Bernhardt appears to watch Dreyfus be paraded as a German spy. France's loss of land to Germany, including Picquart's childhood home of Alsace, is still very much within painful memory and Germany is both feared and hated. Still, when Picquart hears that Dreyfus, the slightly dull student who once sat in his classes, is to be sent to solitary confinement on Devil's Island, he feels that the punishment is a little, "Dumas..."
Before long, Picquart is promoted and ordered to command the Statistical Section himself; the 'grubby work' of espionage. Although he is not keen to enter the world of spying, he soon finds that he enjoys the work and that he is good at it. Perhaps too good. When new evidence comes to light, Picquart wonders whether Dreyfus was not lying when he protested his evidence; whether he was, in fact, just a wealthy Jew who became a scapegoat in a terrible miscarriage of justice. Unsure of who he can trust, Picquart has to ask whether his loyalty to his beloved army means that he has to obey orders at the cost of his conscience. The Dreyfus affair is a fascinating historical event and this book; part thriller and part historical fiction, brings the period and the characters wonderfully to life. Immensely enjoyable, this is a novel to lose yourself in and I recommend it highly.
What most struck me about this book is that while the scale of the conspiracy was breathtaking, most of the characters were unremarkable. There was nothing particular about the French military personnel 120 years ago to make them more prone to dishonesty than the personnel in any other military, or church or bank, or newspaper. Given the right cocktail of circumstances people with power will behave in extraordinary ways. Extraordinarily good as well as extraordinarily bad. I felt slightly wiser after reading it.
I also recommend it as an extremely entertaining read. I already knew the story in some detail and still found the book fascinating all the way.
on 27 August 2014
This is an excellent book that is well researched and well written in equal measure.
I felt the early part of the book was a bit of a slog as the reader was (naturally) introduced to the key characters, but once that hurdle is overcome, we are presented with a well thought out novel which tells the true story of one of France's darkest days.
Praise for the author is well-deserved as Harris has constructed a comprehensive narrative of those events. This is a long book, but you never feel overwhelmed and I finished the book wanting to know more about this true story
Overall, this is an excellent book that deserves the acclaim it receives
on 21 February 2014
“An Officer and a Spy” written by Robert Harris who attracted worldwide public attention with his novel ‘Fatherland’, is a great historical fiction, which tells the less known story of Dreyfus affair that at the end of the 19th and beginning of 20th century divided France and led it to the brink of civil war.
The novel main character Georges Picquart works in French Army Statistical Section, he’s smart recently promoted leader of the counterespionage intelligence unit responsible for Dreyfus exposure as German spy that organized his trial. Alfred Dreyfus was a young Jewish officer, who due to treason conviction was sentenced to life imprisonment at Devil’s Island, while his rank was humiliatingly taken away from him in front of mob crowd of twenty thousand persons which shouted “Death to the Jew!”
Georges Picquart will begin to explore some clues that have emerged in this case, recognizing from the start that things are not exactly like they were presented by government and that obviously something or someone else is behind the accusations that Dreyfus was exposed to and due to which his life was ruined. He will start suspecting that there is still a spy in the French military and that wrong man was accused.
The story is incredibly realistic and reader will many times ask herself/himself if all those things could really happen to this unfortunate man, but to the novel main character as well, who only tries to get to the truth. And while his investigation becomes more complicated, offering only new questions rather than answers, Picquart will start questioning not only the Dreyfus verdict but also his own beliefs, his faith in the French people and the government to which he serves…
“An Officer and a Spy” is a story about the Dreyfus affair, which is not so well known in the rest of the world, and shows a remarkable fact that the anti-Semitic movement was particularly strong in France just before the First World War. On the other hand is amazing that a Jew was accused of helping the Germans forty years before the terrible harm that will be done to Dreyfus people by this same nation.
The affair that took place between 1894 and 1906 is universally seen as a symbol of injustice, being one of the most known examples of unjust accusations where the major parts were played by public opinion and media. In the end, all the accusations against Alfred Dreyfus will prove unfounded and in 1906 Alfred Dreyfus was reinstated in the French Army where he served during the whole of First World War. Dreyfus affair divided whole France, almost leading to the brink of civil war, and one of the most prominent supporters of Alfred Dreyfus was the known writer Émile Zola who took lot of credit that for the Dreyfus accusations rejection.
Robert Harris with this novel once again proved as one of the best historical fiction writer who created compelling characters resulting in his book, despite the length of over 400 pages, is easy to read almost without stopping, even though we know how it will end. Therefore, his great book can certainly be recommended to all those who loved ‘Fatherland’ and Harris style in general, because his latest work “An Officer and a Spy” is a very thrilling and well-written title.
on 9 March 2016
I don't often give up on books, but the first 127 pages of this are slow and to be honest rather tedious in their detail. But on page 128 Harris writes the sentence, "and then quite unexpectedly all of this changes and with it my life and career and everything else". In hindsight this long preamble has been like a long slow climb up the initial slopes of a roller coaster and from this sentence the book grabs you and pins you to the seat of the carriage and does not let you go. Nor do you want it to. The twists and turns off this incredible story - made more so by the fact that it is true - are breathtaking. Never is the outcome of each and every trial predictable and the pace with which evidence and lies are laid before us is masterly. Those initial scene setting pages had to be written in painstaking detail if the rest of the unfolding drama were to have a base and the characters a history. Definitely one of Harris's finest achievements and thankfully a return to form after the roman holiday. Just don't give in before page 127!