I've blogged before about the power of fiction in depicting fact. A recent example was Madeleine Thien's story about the effect of the Cultural Revolution on a Chinese family and their friends, Do not say we have nothing. I think what fiction can do superbly well is to take you into the heart of a situation. Non-fiction cannon give you the facts, occasionally, if the writor's really good it can give you more than that; but fiction at its best can get to the heart of the matter, it can give you the emotion.

Alfred Dreyfus, painted by Guth for Vanity Fair, 1899
I've been a fan of Robert Harris for a long time. He's always enjoyable, whether he is sending his readers into an alternate version of history, as he did in Fatherland, or creating a fictionalized version of real events, as he did with the life of Cicero in Imperium. An officer and a spy, though, is his best work yet. The re-telling of the Dreyfus case from the point of view of the whistle-blower, who risked his life and career, to see Dreyfus freed is a truly amazing story.  Worryingly it is also as relevant as ever.

The Dreyfus affair was a political scandal that rocked France in the early 20th century. Alfred Dreyfus was a career soldier in the French Army. He was happily married, had small children, and no financial worries. He had made few friends among his comrades. This may have been partly due to his character, partly because he had a German accent due to his place of birth in Alsace, something that would have made him less than popular as his country was still recovering from the Franco-Prussian War. It's likely that the main reason why he failed to fit in was that Dreyfus was Jewish.

His origins and character shouldn't have mattered, but there was a German spy in the French army. When suspicion fell on Dreyfus, the High Command was eager to place the blame on an outsider. Dreyfus was arrested, found guilty of treason, subjected to a humiliating public display of degradation, and was then exiled to Devil's Island, a remote and miniscule islet off the coast of S. America. Dreyfus should have been forgotten...

...but then Georges Picquart was put in charge of French Intelligence, where he discovered that there was apparently another German spy. Suspicious he started to investigate privately, and realised that Dreyfus had been framed, and that the French Army had sent an innocent man to a death in life, and had no intention of releasing him even though they were fully aware that he was innocent. Ultimately it was Picquart who would become an unlikely whistle-blower, and a true hero.

Marie-Georges Picquart,
an unlikely whistle-blower
I think that what makes Dreyfus' story so horrifying is that it feels so modern - corruption in high places, conspiracy, racism, and prejudice. It also, extraordinarily, reads like a French adventure story by a true master an Alexandre Dumas perhaps, or a Victor Hugo.

In many ways the story of the Dreyfus Affair is very black and white, there are real villains, who are truly villainous,  but even they are out-weighed by the loyalty of Dreyfus' family, the "Dreyfusards", who supported him - most notably Emile Zola and Georges Clemenceau, and the sheer courage of Georges Picquart, who ultimately braved the establishment to put right a wrong.

There's an uncomfortable end to the story. One of the chief of Dreyfus' persecutors, a consummate anti-Semite would have a descendant who would become involved in "Jewish affairs" in the Vichy government, while Dreyfus' beloved grand-daughter would die in Auschwitz, though I think both her grand-father and Picquart would have been proud that she served in the French Resistance.

What the Dreyfus case demonstrates is that good doesn't always triumph, and that pride, stupidity and misguided loyalty can lead to dreadful miscarriages of justice, but that there will always be a place and a need for ordinary heroes, who do extraordinary things.


Very good review of an excellent book - it made a big impression on me, and the Dreyfus Affair does sometimes defy belief...

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