Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

A Fin-De-Siecle Scandal Robert Harris' 'An Officer and a Spy' Unravels Doctored Evidence of Dreyfus Affair

Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

A Fin-De-Siecle Scandal Robert Harris' 'An Officer and a Spy' Unravels Doctored Evidence of Dreyfus Affair

Article excerpt

"AN OFFICER AND A SPY"

By Robert Harris.

Knopf ($27.95).

Ostracism and prejudice are the subjects of Robert Harris' deft fictionalization of L'affaire Dreyfus, the trial and imprisonment of Alfred Dreyfus, a Jew from Alsace-Lorraine to whom the French military did a historically woeful and consequential wrong.

Told through the eyes of Georges Picquart, head of the statistical section of the French army, "An Officer and a Spy" speaks to our times in its examination of the potential dangers of military intelligence -- and of a bureaucracy bent on policing itself so that the poison at its core never sees the light of day. As much cautionary tale as entertainment, it steps lightly through land mines.

In this case, the poison at the core is anti-Semitism: Dreyfus became a whipping boy for allegedly leaking military secrets to the Germans, who defeated the French resoundingly and humiliatingly in the Franco-Prussian War. Routed in that 1870 conflict, France was forced to give up most of Alsace and parts of Lorraine, which became part of Germany. No wonder the French brass seized on Dreyfus, a son of France's most hated former territory.

In 1894, Dreyfus, an army officer who had served with Picquart, was falsely accused of treason and, after a closed military trial stoked by viciously anti-Semitic French media, was sentenced to life imprisonment on Devil's Island, a notorious penal colony off the coast of French Guinea.

Four years later, after evidence that a dissolute, scheming major, Charles Esterhazy, was the true culprit, Dreyfus was released. In 1906, he was reinstated into the French military.

Mr. Harris, who has written other historical novels including "Fatherland" and "Pompeii," has dramatic material to work with. He ramps it up effectively by making Picquart, rather than the phlegmatic Dreyfus, the hero of this complicated book, as much a psychological study as it is a thriller.

Adept at making history malleable, Mr. …

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