Robert Harris has written an amazing novelization of the factual events from the 1895 trial of Alfred Dreyfus, accused spy in the French military, to his final vindication in 1906 when the decision of the Rennes verdict of the Supreme Court of Appeal was finally quashed. It is told from the point of view of Colonel Georges Picquart and begins with his daily reports on the Dreyfus trial to Minister of War, General Auguste Mercier. Then a major, a few months later, Picquart is promoted and made head of the Statistical Section of the Ministry — the spy catchers/handlers unit.
Harris has total command of all the events and facts and patiently, even painstakingly, takes us through the tiny discoveries Picquart makes along the way which build to prove there is still a spy within the army and that the evidence against Dreyfus was both flimsy and fabricated to varying degrees. He is able to discover the real spy through an operation he runs himself along with a member of the Sûreté (Detective force), Jean-Alfred Desvernine, and a friend, Germaine Ducasse who rents the listening/watching post across from the German Embassy. Problem: 1) the real spy is from a family of wealth and influence, 2) the proof of the case against Dreyfus was part of a conspiracy at the highest level, and 3) there is a general feeling throughout France that a loss of confidence in the integrity of the army high command would be disastrous for France.
So Alfred Dreyfus deteriorates in a 6×6 cell on tiny Devil’s Island, deserted except for his dozen guards who are not allowed to speak to him and where he is eventually shackled to his bed at night — as if there was any way of escape. People at home — his family, lawyers, and certain authors/publishers — are working towards a retrial and eventually, Picquart, effectively banished to the desert of Tunisia, will be brought home to testify and will assist Dreyfus’ friends in any way he can without breaking his sworn confidence to the army.
Not only is this story flawlessly told, but it is beautifully told. The writing is exquisite and the atmosphere and mood of France and the French envelopes the reader.
I reached the pont de l’Alma and saw the shadowy crowd pouring across the dark waters of the Seine, and that was when I realised what Mercier must have known all along: that the human impulse to watch another’s humiliation will always prove sufficient insulation against even the bitterest cold.
Whether you’ve read about Alfred Dreyfus before or have not even heard about him, to relive the anti-semitism of France at the turn of the century, the lengths the conspiracy went to in order to eliminate Picquart, or the long process it took to finally vindicate an innocent man is a revelation that is shocking yet worth savouring simply for the eloquence of the story teller. You can read the introduction and another teaser here. This is the first book I’ve read by Robert Harris but it will not be the last. * * * * *