Magazine article The Spectator

An Affair to Remember

Magazine article The Spectator

An Affair to Remember

Article excerpt

An Officer and a Spy by Robert Harris Hutchinson, £18.99, pp. 496, ISBN 9780091944551 The Dreyfus Affair, the furore caused by a miscarriage of justice in France in 1894, is a source of perennial interest. It raises questions of national identity, political morality and personal integrity that are still relevant today with immigration, Euroscepticism and dodgy dossiers. It is also, as Emile Zola recognised, a gripping story: 'What a poignant drama, and what superb characters.' Like Zola, Robert Harris has recognised the Affair's dramatic potential and re-tells it here as the taut, first-person, present-tense narrative of the heroic Colonel Georges Picquart.

Picquart was a high-flying young officer from Alsace who acted as observer for the Minister of War, General Mercier, during the court martial held in camera of the Jewish officer, Alfred Dreyfus, charged with passing secrets to the Germans. The chief evidence against Dreyfus was the similarity of his handwriting to that on an incriminating document- the bordereau - filched from the wastepaper basket of the German military attache by the embassy's cleaning lady. Dreyfus was duly convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment on Devil's Island.

A year or so later, Picquart was made head of the French secret service, the euphemistically named 'Statistical Section' of the army's Second Bureau. Soon after his appointment there comes from the same wastepaper basket fragments of an unsent letter-telegram which, when pieced together, reveal an ongoing traffic in secret documents. The name and address of the proposed recipient, a Major Esterhazy, are on the form.

In due course, Picquart discovers that the handwriting of Major Esterhazy is identical to that of the bordereau that incriminated Dreyfus. He reports his discovery to his superiors. They tell him to bury it. If Esterhazy is guilty, then Dreyfus is innocent, and to admit a miscarriage of justice in the case of Dreyfus will do irreparable harm to the army in critical times. Picquart protests against this sacrifice of an innocent man. 'Really.' he is told, 'when all is said and done, what does it matter to you if one Jew stays on Devil's Island?'

Those familiar with the Dreyfus Affair will be greatly impressed by the skill with which Harris weaves historical facts into his fictional narrative. He tells us that he has been 'obliged. . . to invent many personal details', and even for Dreyfus cognoscenti it is not always clear what is fact and what is fiction. …

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