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Viccie

An Officer and a Spy

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In 1895, Alfred Dreyfus, a French army captain and a jew from Alsace was convicted of spying for the Germans and sent to Devil's Island for life.  The gradual realisation that the wrong man had been convicted and that the Army and the French authorities were steadfastly refusing to consider that Dreyfus might be innocent became a scandal that rocked the French establishment, revealed the deep seam of anti-semitism in all levels of French society, caused suicides, halted careers and toppled governments.  No spoilers there - it's history and any of us who studied late nineteenth century European history will have touched, albeit briefly on the Dreyfus case.

 

The story unfolds in the words of Colonel Georges Picquart, the new head of one of the army intelligence departments who got his post, ironically enough, for how well he observed Dreyfus's trial, who though he initially believes completely in Dreyfus's guilt begins to realise that he cannot be a spy.  But his superiors won't listen to him and Picquard, who has his own fair share of anti-semitism and doesn't actually like Dreyfus either (he taught him in military school) is driven by his sense of justice to risk everything, his career, his and his friends' reputations, even coming close to losing his life while he fights to establish Dreyfus's innosense - a battle that lasts years.

 

This really is a cracking good read, which zipped along like a thriller - despite me knowing what happened in the end, and is one of those exceptional works of historical fiction that seem to open a window on a previous age.  It also seems uncomfortably close to home in many ways, if you didn't believe that conspiracies can develop you will after reading this and you also might get a nasty feeling that it wouldn't be so difficult for another Dreyfus-sort of case to happen .

 

Very highly recommended.

 

.

 

 

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Thank you for this recommendation, Viccie.  I just finished it last night and thought it was excellent.  I was familiar with the Dreyfus Affair and hesitated to read it because the story is so painful.  In fact, I had to stop and take a short break right as Dreyfus walks into the trap the Army has set for him.  But this presented a level of detail that I had never had before.  I thought it was interesting that in addition to being Jewish, Dreyfus suffered for being from Alsace--with its perceived German sympathies not long after France had lost Alsace to the Germans as the outcome of the Franco-Prussian War--and being richer than his superiors.  He seems to have been a most honorable man, beloved by his wife (Harris quotes from what I think are their actual letters to each other) and his brother.  I thought it interesting that the brother was so loyal and did so much to try to get Dreyfus's name cleared.  I find that kind of brotherly devotion very touching and it sort of reminded me of Vincent Van Gogh and his brother.  

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What a gripping read this is.

 

The Dreyfus Affair, as it became known, divided France and exposed an ugly vein of anti-Semitism running through French society.  Dreyfus, who would be pardoned in 1898 and then exonerated in 1906, endured nearly five  years in the hell-hole that was Devil’s Island, just off the coast of French Guiana in South America, while the real spy was protected by the army he had betrayed.

 

Robert Harris explores the Dreyfus Affair through Colonel Georges Picquart who, as head of the Statistical Section, a clandestine intelligence unit, gained access to the secret evidence against Dreyfus. Through Picquart’s narration he sets the scene, explaining the complexities of the original case against Dreyfus and the rising feelings of anti-Semitism in France. Harris’s Picquart is an interesting character, a career soldier who finds intelligence work distasteful and longs to return to “real” soldiering.  He witnesses Dreyfus’s public humiliation, as the captain is stripped of his military insignia to shouts of “Death to the Jew”.

 

With no reason to doubt Dreyfus’s guilt Picquart is nonetheless disturbed by the event. His disquiet increases when he is promoted and takes over the Statistical Section and examines the evidence; evidence that is thin and ambiguous. He sets up his own secret investigation and finds that another man, Major Esterhazy, has been passing low level intelligence to Germany. And so begins Picquart’s Kafkaesque struggle to convince his colleagues and superiors of Dreyfus’s innocence and Esterhazy’s guilt. He soon finds himself in the same position as the man he is trying to help as he is framed by forged documents and perjured testimony.

 

I don't know what liberties the author has taken when fictionalising a true story but the facts of the Dreyfus Affair are so incredible that Harris has no need to embellish.  It's enthralling.

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Chuntzy, I merged your comments with the existing thread (which I knew about, obviously, because I had posted on it).  First of all, I figured out how to do it all by myself, although it wasn't hard.  And second of all, that really was a excellent book.  

 

I forgot to mention when I posted that I read it on my tablet and liked doing so because every time a new person or place was introduced, I could go to wikipedia and read the article on that person or place.  The Dreyfus Affair is well-documented, so that there were a lot of pictures and information.

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Chuntzy, I merged your comments with the existing thread (which I knew about, obviously, because I had posted on it).  First of all, I figured out how to do it all by myself, although it wasn't hard.  And second of all, that really was a excellent book.  

 

I forgot to mention when I posted that I read it on my tablet and liked doing so because every time a new person or place was introduced, I could go to wikipedia and read the article on that person or place.  The Dreyfus Affair is well-documented, so that there were a lot of pictures and information.

 

Like you I was Wiki-ing as well!  I knew the basics but the old photos and more biographical details added to my engagement with the novel.

 

I can't understand why I couldn't find this thread.  Entering 'Robert Harris' I did find 'Pompeii' but not this novel.  The search function truly is a mess as I've found previously.    

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Just finished reading this and like previous comments I was very impressed by how Harris handled the telling of the story. Almost unveiling the events in a methodical way (though never boring), mirroring the process of investigation. The 'characters' were very believable, of course they were real people but some novellists tackling historical people and event don't always capture the essence of the characters.  

 

Like Viccie I was struck by how easy it would be for this kind of conspiracy to be played out in our 21st century political landscape, especially given the events in America over the past couple of years. It re-enforced my belief that we should never fully trust any of our 'leaders'. Once power has been gained politicians have a tendency to do whatever they can to remain in power and become remote from the very people they are supposed to be serving.   

 

A thoroughly enjoyable book. I will try more of the books by Robert Harris.  

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I NEVER trust our leaders and am always shocked about how many people hero-worship a President or other politician.  They almost never deserve that kind of adoration.  I don't just mean Trump, whom all right-thinking people loathe, but also Barack Obama, whom my friends hero-worship, notwithstanding the fact that he did everything he could to expand executive power.  Fortunately, the Supreme Court spanked his hand and wouldn't allow his executive orders to stand.  That's how I knew that all those orders that Trump signed his first few days in office wouldn't stand up--because Obama had already tried to "rule" that way and been stopped.  My guess is that he (or his advisers) knew it and just had him sign all that crap as a sop to his base.  

 

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