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The City Of Invention

The book reviews of UK children's author, Brian Keaney

History Made Intensely Real

An Officer and a Spy - Robert Harris

An Officer and a Spy is a fictionalisation of the Dreyfus Affair, a scandal that rocked France at the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century. Alfred Dreyfus was a Jewish officer in the French army who was found guilty of treason and sentenced to solitary confinement on Devil's Island in French Guiana. It was subsequently discovered that the real spy was a man called Esterhazy and that Dreyfus was entirely innocent. However, rather than admit their error, the High Command of the French army conspired to cover up the truth. Witnesses were found dead, evidence was forged and it was only after many years of campaigning by French radicals, including the writer Emile Zola, that the truth was revealed and Dreyfus exonerated. The whole affair convulsed French society for more than a decade and became a symbol of institutional injustice and anti-Semitism.

The story is told from the point of view of Georges Picquart, the head of the French counter-intelligence service who originally discovered the real identity of the spy but whose efforts to bring the truth to the attention of his superiors only led to him being court-martialed and imprisoned on trumped up charges of forgery.

This is a complicated story with a large cast of characters. There are multiple twists and turns in the legal and political process and there is a great deal of detail that needs to be clearly conveyed if the reader is to follow the progress of the conspiracy. Harris achieves this with apparent ease. I found the characterisation completely convincing. How easily this cast of self-satisfied military bureaucrats closing ranks in their determination to protect their own careers would translate into today's world.

The Dreyfus affair is a story that any student of modern European history will be at least partially familiar with yet Harris brings it to life with extraordinary intensity. His gift is to bring history to life by showing us that however much the backdrop changes, human nature is always eminently recognisable.