Books: An Officer and a Spy

I was actually looking for a historical mystery by Tessa Harris, a book which I didn’t find on the library’s shelves because (I figured out later) I had not noticed that the catalog identified it as an ebook. But I quickly realized that the shelf did have several historical novels written by Robert Harris.

After looking at the flap copy (a useful term that has eluded me for some time) of a few of his books, I selected An Officer and a Spy. I vaguely remember learning about the Dreyfus Affair in some history class or other, but all I could remember was that it was a terrible miscarriage of justice. I didn’t remember how it turned out (for Dreyfus himself, though I knew he was shown to be innocent) – which made the novel more suspenseful than books based on history generally manage to be.

Unlike many (probably most) historical novels I have read, the main characters are all real people from history. Rather than using historic events as the backdrop for a fictional story, Harris is telling history from the point of view of one of the participants. Naturally he has to use his imagination to flesh out the character of Colonel Picquart, his thoughts and motivations and details of his daily activities.

I was quickly engrossed in the story. Picquart no doubt has some significant moral shortcomings (a long-time affair with a married woman, as well as prejudice toward Germans and Jews), and this review of the novel asserts that Harris has “mildly sanitised” the character of Picquart. But his dedication to his duty and to the pursuit of truth and justice, despite the dangers to his career and possibly his life, make him a heroic character.

Knowing the end of the story (that Dreyfus would be shown to be innocent), the officers involved in the cover-up seem foolish as well as corrupt. But of course cover-ups are as old as human history, and a quick review of recent history shows that they are as prevalent now as ever. Whether the motivation is preservation of personal power and reputation, or keeping in power a political bloc that one believes is truly better for the country, the same justifying excuses are made for (what is eventually seen as) blatant injustice.

Many years ago, I ended up buying The Affair: The Case of Alfred Dreyfus by Jean-Denis Bredin because I had forgotten to respond to a book club’s monthly selection. I decided it was, after all, a book worth having, and intended to read it someday. I never have yet, but perhaps now I will.

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