Two officers, arch-conservative and well-to-do, loyal to the French army and highly rationale. Neither particularly sympathetic. One is the anti-semitic Colonel Georges Picquart, head of the French secret service, who discovers that the other, the Jew, Alfred Dreyfus, already found guilty of spying and sentenced to life imprisonment on Devil’s Island, is innocent. What is one to do after honest approaches to the top brass have resulted in exile to an African outpost and assignment to what is effectively a suicide mission? Cast aside the doubts, defend yourself and become a whistleblower!
The seeds of An Officer and A Spy were sown while Harris was working on the script of his previous novel, The Ghost, with Roman Polanski. Polanski commissioned him to write a script about the Dreyfus affair. During the course of his research, Harris decided that he would rather write a novel. There is much more to the story than can be brought out in a film script. Polanski agreed and besides, he’ll get a film adaptation out of it at a later date.
The outcomes of the Dreyfus affair are well-known, and yet the novel is an absolute page-turner. (479 pages read in the course of a weekend.) Picquart’s narrative is absolutely compelling, said Harris, at The Summerhall Historical Fiction Festival, and to capitalise on that I wrote the novel in 1st person. This places the reader inside Picquart’s mind and let’s them discover the actual spy and Dreyfus’s innocence in real-time so to speak. I can confirm that this was a good decision because, as a reader, you also experience Picquart’s dilemma. That he is a patriot, there can be no doubt. Neither does he want to destroy the trust of the French people in the military, defender of French honour following the soul-destroying defeat to the Germans in 1870. Yet there is higher justice whose call he cannot ignore …
… unlike Major Henri, who determines that honour demands unconditional support of the establishment. Any action that damages the reputation of the French army is traitorous. His mantra – tell me what to do and I’ll do it – or words to that effect. Married to the old code until death do them part, he is Picquart’s counterpoint. The duel that the two fight isn’t just idealogical – at one point it is a physical 19th century duel with swords and seconds, ironically insisted upon by the man who is about to shatter 19th century values.
Harris said that he didn’t realise he had written a story about a whistleblower until he had finished (pre-Snowden) and he didn’t consciously emphasise contemporary resonances while he was writing. Nevertheless the lessons to be learned from the Dreyfus affair are clear. Justice must be seen to be done. Corruption results when an institution polices itself, courts are held behind closed doors and decisions are based on the content of secret dossiers. (Insert your own 21st century example here.) In addition, he said, the Dreyfus affair is a powerful argument for an unfettered press. The ugly side – in Dreyfus’s case, the hysteria of the anti-semitic papers – was the price to be paid. Without that freedom, Zola would never have been able to publish J’accuse and Dreyfus would have been left to rot on Devil’s Island.