“Burke shows again that he’s not just a comic genius, but also a fine dramatic writer and storyteller.” – Booklist. “Prose both scabrous and poetic.” – Publishers Weekly. “Proust meets Chandler over a pint of Guinness.” – Spectator. “Among the most memorable books of the year, of any genre.” – Sunday Times. “A hardboiled delight.” – Guardian. “Imagine Donald Westlake and Richard Stark collaborating on a screwball noir.” – Kirkus Reviews. “A cross between Raymond Chandler and Flann O’Brien.” – John Banville.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Review: AN OFFICER AND A SPY by Robert Harris

Robert Harris’s latest novel opens in 1895 with an account of the ‘degradation’ of Major Alfred Dreyfus. Found guilty of selling state secrets to Germany, the mortal enemy of France since the crushing defeat in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, Dreyfus is humiliated in a public ceremony in which he is paraded before his peers, physically stripped of his rank, and deported to Devil’s Island four thousand miles away, there to serve out his sentence in what amounts to solitary confinement.
  It’s a dramatic act, in both senses of the word. Dreyfus’s treatment serves as a grotesque pantomime for the masses. “The Romans fed Christians to the lions,” a bystander observes, “we feed them Jews. That is progress, I suppose.”
  Anti-Semitism is rife in 1890’s France, and the fact that Alfred Dreyfus was a Jew made him not only suspect but guilty before his trial even began. Equally important in terms of Robert Harris’s narrative, however, is the paranoia that grips the upper echelons of the French army. Still traumatised by the Franco-Prussian war, defensive to the point of paralysis, the French generals require a swift and clear-cut resolution to the ‘Dreyfus affair’.
  Alfred Dreyfus is not the ‘officer and spy’ of the novel’s title, however. Major Georges Picquart serves in the Third Department of the French War Ministry, a decorated soldier who specialises in topography. As a boy he survived the German bombardment of Strasbourg during the Franco-Prussian War; with his family he moved from German-occupied Alsace to Paris, joined the army to escape poverty, and grew up with the army as his father. “No son,” Picquart tell us, “strove harder to please a demanding papa.” A rock-solid establishment figure, Picquart is rewarded for his part in the entrapment of Alfred Dreyfus with a promotion to Colonel and a position heading up the ‘Statistical Agency’ – in reality, the French army’s intelligence section.
  A cultured man who spends his spare time reading novels by Dostoevsky and Tolstoy and attending concerts by Debussy and Casals, Picquart considers himself ill-suited for the lying, cheating and spying of the intelligence-gathering game. Here he is being a little too generous on his own behalf, as Picquart has for many years conducted an affair with Pauline Monnier, the wife of his good friend – although Picquart, being a true son of France, would rubbish any suggestion that his affair is immoral as bourgeois thinking.
  It’s at this point in the story that Robert Harris’s fictional retelling of the Dreyfus affair begins in earnest. Convinced that Dreyfus is guilty, Picquart is shocked to discover anomalies in the secret file used to convict Dreyfus. The logic is inescapable: if Dreyfus is innocent, the real traitor remains at large, and is very probably still in the business of selling state secrets. Thus Picquart goes to war against the defenders of his own country, determined to expose their cover-up in order to preserve the integrity of the French army he loves like a father.
  An Officer and A Spy is a sprawling historical thriller that’s very much in the mould of Robert Harris’s Fatherland (1992), Enigma (1995) and Archangel (1998). Constrained by the historical facts, and aware that most readers will know how the Dreyfus Affair concluded – Harris doesn’t avail of the ‘alternative history’ narrative he pursued in Fatherland, for example – Harris elects to employ a first-person, present-tense narrative voice that makes Picquart’s account of his investigation a claustrophobically gripping tale. None of the characters involved, Harris tells us in his Author’s Note, are ‘wholly fictional’, but Picquart himself is a novelist’s dream, a charismatically complex man who is utterly immoral in his private life and yet sees no hypocrisy in demanding the highest professional standards from his fellow officers, the politicians who govern France and the people they represent.
  What is particularly fascinating is the way in which Harris charts Picquart’s growing self-awareness as a spy and a patriot in literary terms, and particularly in Picquart’s interweaving of ‘high’ and ‘low’ literature and his growing understanding of the power of narrative with mass appeal.
  Early in the story Picquart sets aside Émile Zola’s new novel because “its subject, the Roman Catholic Church, bores me, and it also runs to seven hundred and fifty pages. I am willing to accept such prolixity from Tolstoy but not from Zola.” Much later, handing a folder of damning evidence to his lawyer, Picquart is aware that his lawyer “considers it melodramatic, the sort of device one might encounter in a railway ‘thriller’. I would have felt the same until a year ago. Now I have come to see that thrillers may sometimes contain more truths than all Monsieur Zola’s social realism put together.”
  Shortly afterwards, and now a committed ‘Dreyfusard’ along with Zola, Picquart tells the novelist that “somehow this affair must be taken out of the jurisdiction of the military and elevated to a higher plane – the details need to be assembled into a coherent narrative […] Reality must be transformed into a work of art, if you will.”
  Zola, of course, subsequently published his famous J’accuse on the front page of the newspaper L’Aurore, an open letter to the French president alleging the obstruction of justice in the highest ranks of the French army.
  Robert Harris similarly avails of mass-market appeal to tell his story. An Officer and A Spy is written in elegant prose reminiscent of the 19th century historical novel, but its form is a hybrid of the contemporary thriller, the spy novel and the courtroom drama. It is persuasive and engaging on all of these levels, while providing a unique and fresh reading of the Dreyfus affair. It’s also a timely offering, serving as a warning against religious bigotry and ‘group-think’, and the massaging of intelligence information in order to produce a required, pre-determined result.

  This review was first published in the Irish Times.

3 comments:

Lauren said...

I started out as a historian, and have a particular interest in this sort of topic; I've also read a great deal about Dreyfus and Zola, and a fair number of Zola's novels (incidentally, I too prefer Tolstoy most of the time, but I think Zola's can get away with his wordiness on occasion, and I do find his social criticism more convicing. Have been re-reading Anna Karenina lately, and some of the parts where aristocratic responsibility is being discussed are...well, I know why I skipped over them in a hurry when I was younger.)

That rather long lead-in is just to say that I wasn't expecting all that much when I picked up the book, and was surprised to find how much that I enjoyed it. It is indeed elegantly written, and a testament to the construction that 'how did the main character change his mind and his attitudes?' as the main plot strand kept me engaged all the way through - as you said, it isn't a book you read for the surprise plot.

Anyway, I don't comment much, but it's rare that I read a review where I agree with every word!

Declan Burke said...

Thanks kindly for the good word, Lauren. Much appreciated.

Becky said...

Great review! I am addicted to historical political thrillers and in fact just finished one by Adrienne LaCava titled, "No One Can Know-http://adriennelacava.com/ "an interesting cast providing various perspectives on 1960’s issues- including the JFK assassination!
I have been watching for something new to read and have to say that I can't wait to check out "An Officer and a Spy." Thanks for recommending it!