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 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 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 29 September 2015
This book was absolutely amazing. I found I couldn't put this book down at all. I actually wanted to read a light book while I was on vacation with my husband, but I opened this and I couldn't stop. I didn't find it a difficult read but it does take you some time to get through it simply because you're trying to concentrate. You may end up trying to learn more about the characters later on Wikipedia.
I started this without knowing anything about the Dreyfus Affair. I actually had not even heard of it (I did not grow up in Europe), so if you don't know anything about it, that's fine. It's not a problem at all. Just don't go on Wikipedia while you're reading it, so it doesn't spoil it for you.
I've read one other Robert Harris book and that was Fatherland. I thought Fatherland was good, but I found this a lot more enriching and a lot better. I was more compelled to read every other page in this book.
I would honestly recommend this book to anyone with even a slight interest in history.
on 25 October 2013
I stymied my reading pleasure, once I realised that I knew nothing about the Dreyfus Affair, by reading up some background which meant that the startling facts of the story did not shock. I regret this as the story is fascinating and timely. As usual, Robert Harris has developed the voice of a companionable narrator who is central to the story which reads well throughout. Look at wikipedia later as the photos of the protagonists ground the story in reality.
on 7 October 2013
This is the ninth novel from Robert Harris, the latest in an illustrious sequence including such top sellers such as `Fatherland', `Enigma', `Archangel', `Pompeii' and `The Ghost'. These novels aren't easy to compartmentalise; some are certainly thrillers, but others don't comfortably fit into that genre. Most - but not all - have a historical dimension, but even then the settings range from the recent past to the days of the Roman Empire. That's part of the author's appeal - the reader never knows quite what to expect but can be sure that, however complex the subject matter may be, it will be presented in language which may in turn be atmospheric, dynamic, provocative or idyllic but will always be accessible. As a former political reporter and journalist, Harris has enviable language skills, but he is certainly not part of the I-know-more-big-words-than-you-do school of writing.
Given such varied output, it's hardly surprising that readers will enjoy some Harris books more than others; that much is evident from the range of reviews posted here. I quite enjoyed reading his previous novel, `The Fear Index', but having finished the book I found myself picking retrospective holes in the plotting, and by the time I wrote a review I felt that it only merited three stars. That certainly hasn't happened with `An Officer and a Spy'; from the opening chapters it felt like a five-star novel, and it still does!
The novel explores the `Dreyfus Affair', a political scandal that rocked France and caught the attention of the world in the 1890s, not being finally resolved until 1906. Alfred Dreyfus was a captain in the French army, a Jew from Alsace, the French region centred on Strasbourg which was annexed by Germany after the Franco-Prussian war of 1870. In the early 1890s, the French army obtained evidence that a member of their forces was attempting to sell secret information to the Germans. On the flimsiest of circumstantial evidence, Dreyfus was arrested and subsequently tried, convicted and exiled fur life to Devil's Island, off the coast of French Guiana. He was the ideal culprit for a variety of reasons. He was a Jew at a time when anti-Semitism was rife in France. He spoke German, and French with a German accent (as in fact did a significant proportion of the inhabitants of Alsace!). He had relatives, still living in Alsace, who were now by definition German nationals. He was wealthy, but that wealth was derived from assets in Germany. He was not a social creature, but he was ambitious for advancement and asked a lot of questions. Certainly the military authorities believed him to be guilty, but they had assembled no hard evidence to support that belief and Dreyfus continued to protest his innocence.
The story is told through the eyes of Georges Picquart, who - like all the characters in the book - was a real person. As a major, Picquart had tutored Dreyfus at the Army College, and at the time of the trial he was selected to brief the Minister of War and the Chief of the General Staff on the day-to-day progress of the military court. For his success in performing this service he was promoted to the rank of colonel - the youngest in the French army - and appointed as the new head of army intelligence.
That sets the scene, and to go further might compromise the enjoyment of potential readers who, like myself, start with a vague awareness of the Dreyfus affair but little or no knowledge of the detail. Even with almost 500 pages at his disposal, the author admits that the cast of characters has had to be limited and, of course, there are - to use the author's own words - `various sleights of hand in narrative and characterisation' needed to turn fact into fiction. But, in substance, the story is told precisely as it happened.
The Dreyfus story works extremely well as a novel. Obviously, historians require facts, but facts served alone can be too dry for the palate of the general reader. Fiction, as for example in the accounts of interaction between the various characters, adds spice and (with apologies for overworking the metaphor!) makes the whole thing much more digestible.
If this review piques your interest in the book, I unreservedly recommend that you read it. You'll probably enjoy it rather more if you don't pursue Dreyfus on Google beforehand, but you should certainly do so afterwards, just to satisfy yourself that `A Officer and a Spy' stays very close to the historical facts. Even if you are already familiar with the Dreyfus affair, the book is well worth reading - the message is as relevant today as it was a century ago.
As a parting thought, if you think that this sort of thing could only happen in a country like France, think again. There have been similar miscarriages of justice on this side of the Channel - check out Oscar Slater on Google. The circumstances were admittedly rather different; the place of the French army was taken by the City of Glasgow Police Force, and the year was 1908. But as in the Dreyfus affair there was increasing public unease about the case, the protests ultimately being championed by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes. As in France the wheels of justice turned slowly and the matter was not resolved until 1928. A little more research will reveal plenty of similar cases, and it is naïve to suppose that gross miscarriages of justice are solely a thing of the past.
on 2 April 2015
“The government of the republic has given me back my freedom. It is nothing for me without my honour.” – Alfred Dreyfus
Robert Harris brings to life events,and people with ease and a clear prose that leaps of the pages into our consciousness, making us care for people and events that are still relevant today as they were in their time.
This is the story Alfred Dreyfus (1859 – 1935) a French artillery officer of Jewish background that was accused of spying, charged, convicted, publicly degraded, and incarcerated in The penal colony of Cayenne also known as Devils Island, where his captor expected him to die and did all within their power to accomplish this end; he refused to surrender his honor or his life, growing larger than their injustice. His only crime was being jewish, but in this dishonorable men eyes that was more than enough.
Also the story of Marie Georges Picquart (1854 – 1914) and officer that risked all for the truth and justice. The real spy was a french officer of good social standing that does not deserve to be remembered by name, he was just a crime.
Sometimes a true story is so implausible you have to let the readers know that these events did really occur in what is the history of a modern, cultured nation, it also serves as a warning of how prejudices can poison the soul of a nation.
A Historical fiction thriller that delivers a shocking true story that France has to accept with shame; a shame, that sadly was surpassed by the Vichy government in the collaboration with the extermination of European jews (In 1995, President Jacques Chirac officially recognized the responsibility of the French state for the deportation of Jews during the war, in particular the more than 13,000 victims the Vel' d'Hiv Roundup of July 1942, during which Laval decided, of his own volition and without being requested by the occupying German authorities, to deport children along with their parents.)
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.
This story is based on true events and you get more than just a feeling that it has been extremely well researched, It's about the miss use of power and covering your own tracks for your own ends. One man against a lot of senior officers who are looking for a scape goat. you will find that all the emotions are there as the person who has been maligned tries to find out the truth and then has to battle the establishment. I found that I couldn't put it down once under way. a court room section as well near the end. very well written, maybe not for everyone but I think most will enjoy..