An Officer and a Spy by Robert Harris - Book Review
“An Officer and a Spy” by Robert Harris.
This book is about the Alfred Dreyfus affair that occurred at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries, a scandal that rocked France to its foundations. It is a fashionable mixture of fact and fiction, faction if you prefer, the basic facts being all correct, the dialogue and some of the story all being the creation of the writer, Robert Harris.
And a little like the story of the Titanic, most people will know how the story ends, or will they? Perhaps not. I am certainly not going anywhere near that part of the book so please don’t be concerned about spoilers.
The Dreyfus family came from Alsace, that disputed territory that was forever changing hands between France and Germany depending on who won the most recent war. After the Franco-Prussian war of 1870, - thumping victory for Germany - , the Dreyfus family moved to Paris where the Jewish family made their home. The family spoke Yiddish, German, and French, but they wanted and chose to be French, not German.
Alfred worked hard, joined the army, gained promotions and reached a responsible position. Meanwhile the French intelligence service discovers that someone is passing vital secrets to their German counterparts, and after something of a slapdash investigation, Dreyfus is obviously the culprit. He’s German after all, and Jewish! What more proof do you need? Don’t worry, I am still at the beginning of the book.
Dreyfus is found guilty, there was never any doubt about that, the verdict that is, and is sentenced to be publicly court marshalled, and if that isn’t enough, is given twenty year’s hard labour on Devil’s Island, the French penal colony located twelve miles off steamy French Guiana in South America. (You might know it from the film Papillon, which is not about the Dreyfus affair.) That hefty punishment doesn’t satisfy the baying mob though who want the “filthy treacherous Jew” put to death on the spot. It’s a close run thing, Dreyfus escapes with his neck and is duly sent overseas.
Georges Picquart, a former military teacher of Dreyfus, and the hero and main character of this book, is promoted to head of French Intelligence, and yes, he did really exist too, an appointment he neither seeks nor wants, and the files are dumped on his desk, and he, like everyone else in the French establishment, “knows” that Dreyfus must be guilty so there is nothing to worry about there, and that is where this book really begins.
The whole work is based on known facts and is, as is always the case with Robert Harris’s books, meticulously well researched. But there is a lot of excellent dialogue in the book and this is all of Mister Harris’s creation. Whether it is in any way accurate no one will ever know, but it does all add up to a great read, and it really doesn’t matter if you know the ending or not.
Like many people I have read all of Robert Harris’s fictional works and I could not help but think that with each passing title the quality of the work was slightly diminished. Just my opinion on that. I certainly found Ghost and The Fear Index to be that way, but perhaps that was inevitable after he opened up with the brilliant Fatherland. In any event An Officer and a Spy has put an end to any, real or imaginary, deterioration in his work. Mister Harris certainly seems more at home with military war stories and scandals.
This is an excellent work and I certainly recommend it for it carries lessons for any generation, and particularly about the demonisation of minorities and whistleblowers who may choose to live their lives in a different way to the majority.
It’s very well written with one or two minor blips that did annoy me. What the heck is “burglarising” when it is at home? – a word that certainly is never used in modern day Britain, and one I am certain would not have been used in late 19th century France either, and did “Excuse me?” for pardon, or I beg your pardon, have to rear its ugly head again – I don’t think so, two minor irritants that suggests the book was edited and proofread by our American cousins. Either way, I felt they didn’t belong in this book.
That aside this is a great read and one that will live long in the memory after you have passed the book on to someone else.
So what next for Robert Harris? He has given us two works from World War II, two works from ancient Rome, so on the basis of everything in two’s, what’s the bet of another book coming from France, in which case surely Napoleon and his era could provide Mister Harris with ample scope for another epic scandal-based novel. That’s my bet, and I’m looking forward to it. Over to you, Rob.
An Officer and a Spy – Book Review EXTRA.
I have long had an interest in the Dreyfus affair, indeed twenty-five years ago I wrote to Steven Spielberg suggesting that the whole business would make a quite wonderful film. Didn’t receive a reply though, but perhaps this latest take on the whole sorry business will persuade Steven, or someone similar, to make an updated film version of the story. Robert Harris’s books are invariably made into movies, though, as even he would admit, they have not always been of the greatest quality.
Quite coincidentally, I worked for the he French-American commodity trading giant Louis-Dreyfus for five years and the Dreyfus affair was occasionally talked about there. Apparently the Louis-Dreyfus family were distant cousins of Alfred Dreyfus which all added to my interest.
But back to the book, page 47 line 11 to be precise: “but he if he hears me, he makes no answer.”
What’s that about? It’s either a proofreading error or just plain clunky, and no, I am not being pernickety here. So what’s my point? Well, put it this way, if that sentence appeared in an indie produced book I can guarantee that the critical reviewers would immediately jump on it from on high and say “Ah hah! could have done with an better edit though – and that’s the overriding problem with indie books”.
And it wasn’t the only one in the book either, but it didn’t matter and it didn’t detract from the wonderful book that it is. All I am saying is that even multinational publishers like Hutchison’s with all their assets and armies of editors can and do let through occasional rogue sentences, so how about showing a little more understanding and tolerance to indie publishers who simply do not have those facilities and editing muscle when they do the same. We all make mistakes! I thank you. I’ll get off my soapbox now.
Time for some video and what a cracking video it is too.
Here’s the man himself, Robert Harris, talking about this book and his writing in general. Very well worth watching. It’s about seven and a half minutes long. Hope you enjoy it.
Here's another Robert Harris book review:
Let’s face it, Neville Chamberlain gets something of a bad press, all that hopeful waving of a slice of paper in the wind at Heston Aerodrome, and an appeasing speech was never going to look good, and maybe one of his colleagues should have realised that and warned him about it.
Fact is, that if we had gone to war at that time, a year earlier in 1938 than when it actually broke out in the autumn of 1939, we’d probably have been trounced five nil, what with one serviceable squadron of modern planes, complete with trained pilots and spares. That vital year gave us enough time to get (almost) up to speed, and in the end that made the difference. Just!
This book, Robert Harris’s latest novel “Munich”, centres on the hastily arranged conference in 1938 featuring our Nev of course, plus a bad-tempered Adolf, (was he ever anything else?) in need of a good wash by all accounts, if the story is to be believed - is that fact or fiction? Plus Musso and Deladier in supporting roles. That all happened sure enough, there is no denying that.
The poor Czechs were invited too but the Gestapo made sure they never left their hotel rooms. How could they possibly be included in the actual talks when it was their country that was being carved up?
One always has to be very careful when reading fiction/faction books for after a while it’s all too easy to pick up facts that are nothing more than the writer’s imagination.
Robert Harris crosses over into pure fiction by creating two twenty-somethings from pre-war Oxford Uni, Hugh Legat and Paul Hartmann, bosom pals, lover of the same girl, aren’t they always, brilliant language students the both of them, who, hey ho, turn up at the conference as civil servants/translator bods. Paul has info he desperately wants Hugh to have, though the papers and info he possesses never really comes across here as that important or earth shattering.
Robert Harris is rightly famous for his painstaking research, but there were a couple of things here that didn’t quite ring true to me. Firstly, was that really a mention of British Airways I read? Didn’t BA start in 1974, that one puzzled me, and secondly, did Neville Chamberlain really receive more raucous applause from the German public in Munich in 1938 than our (c)old mate Adolf? Really? I somehow doubt that too. Pardon me if I am being picky here.
Robert Harris is a fantastic writer, and as someone else commented, even when he is only 60% of his best he is still way better than so many of his contemporaries.
Someone else mentioned too that this is or was a sequel or prequel to “Fatherland” – it is nothing of the kind, but if you like, or are fascinated by this period of history, as so many people are, you will get something out of this book.
It’s well-written, as you would expect, has sold the customary shed loads, but there are no great surprises, and in the end it left the reader feeling kind of flat, as if there was so much more to come, but I guess you can only fiddle with history so much or you risk losing the history buffs altogether.
The writer clearly harbours some sympathy for Mr Chamberlain, and maybe he does deserve better than he gets, and as time passes by people’s perception changes. Coincidentally, this afternoon I saw a photo of Mr Chamberlain walking seemingly carefree in a London park with his wife Anne, two days before the actual outbreak of war. If only one could go up to him and say: Penny for your thoughts, Neville, penny for your thoughts?
Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed this book, read it quickly too, and as ever, I am now eagerly looking forward to the next one. Bonaparte maybe, Churchill even, or something more radical, like Mosley? There must be plenty of black stories still to come out of that rich seam, which reminds me, my dad was at the Cable Street riots in 1936, and most definitely he was not wearing black, though hopefully he didn’t have his RN uniform on at the time.