Mar 192014
 

An-Officer-and-a-SpyRobert Harris makes his living fictionalizing famous historical events (see Pompeii).  In this case, it is the end of the nineteenth century, and the French have unjustly stripped Albert Dreyfus of his rank in the French Army and disposed of him to die locked in a tin shed beneath the blazing tropical sun of Devil’s Island. It is a moment of overt anti-Semitism in France that results in a horrible miscarriage of justice that stains France ever after, and, I have to admit, an event about which I knew precious few details.  Well, this book has the details, but the first half is just that, a drudge of notecards Harris must have used to construct his text.  Harris presents the Dreyfus Affair through the eyes of Col. Georges Picquart, an officer who at first, following orders, assists in  Dreyfus’s conviction.  In the subsequent five years, however, Picquart is given the credit, in this account, for becoming a man of conscience who recognizes that Dreyfus has been framed and the Army is involved in a massive cover-up.  The book does not come alive until its second half when at last it becomes a courtroom procedural.  By the end, when Dreyfus is finally recalled to France, and Picquart has become France’s leading General, you are still left wondering about the larger picture.  Why was France so anti-Semitic?  On what evidence did Zola, Clemenceau, and their fellow Dreyfusards base their case against the government?  And why do all of the main characters in Harris’ account speak with such identical, lifeless voices?

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