Tuesday, 29 March 2016

An Officer and a Spy by Robert Harris Review


At the end of the 19th century France was consumed by an incident called The Dreyfus Affair where a man called Alfred Dreyfus was caught allegedly giving French military secrets to Germany. Robert Harris’ An Officer and a Spy, which is set directly in the aftermath of Dreyfus’ conviction, revisits the affair from the perspective of Georges Picquart, the newly appointed spymaster of French Intelligence, who discovers not only that Dreyfus was innocent but that there was a massive conspiracy behind the framing.

I usually like Harris’ novels (I highly recommend The Ghost and The Fear Index - great thrillers) so I was disappointed at how crap An Officer and a Spy turned out to be. At 600 pages it’s longer than Harris’ usual books and you definitely feel its length. Long-winded is a good description of this story rather than the misnomer “thriller”.

Part of the problem is our protagonist, Picquart, who comes off as very standoffish, cold and unlikeable - because of him it always feels like we’re experiencing the story from a distance and can’t get too involved with it. Dreyfus, despite the novel being basically about him, is kept off page for the most part and we never get to know him, making everything that happens feel sort of abstract. The other characters - and there are a lot of supporting characters, mostly military officers - feel identical and one-dimensional. 

Harris doesn’t do a good job of providing context for the story. I wasn’t at all familiar with the Dreyfus Affair before reading this and some detail on why Alsace-Lorraine was so contested between France and Germany, and Dreyfus’ relevance with that background, would’ve been useful. He does mention that Germany annexed that land in the last French/German war of 1870 but he doesn’t go further and connect that to Dreyfus and why he did what he supposedly did. 

Then there’s the Affair itself - Dreyfus allegedly giving French artillery secrets to the Germans isn’t a very interesting angle to me at all. I understood its importance, I just didn’t care. Then we get into the trial and its particulars and it becomes maddeningly convoluted and tedious to recount. 

Generally speaking it is a fascinating story, all the more so given that it’s non-fiction. It’s a massive case of injustice, people are conveniently knocked off, there’s a lot of cloak and daggers, and Picquart was an immensely brave and moral man - Dreyfus too - for enduring such harshness. But Harris’ treatment of it all renders the drama stale and unexciting, not to mention repetitive as the same details are dredged up again and again during endless trials. 

I’m sure there are better accounts of the Dreyfus Affair - the material is so rich with intrigue, someone’s bound to have spun it into narrative gold somewhere - but Robert Harris’ fictional take on it is definitely not one of them.

An Officer and a Spy

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