Events so bizarre and unbelievable could only be fact
I overheard Harris being interviewed on Radio 4, talking about this ‘novel’ – except to call it a novel implies that it must be fiction. As Harris and the interviewer concurred, if someone invented the Dreyfus affair as a fiction, the writer would be castigated for having stretched credulity too far.
In fact, as Harris points out, all this is documented, and researched, and is a deeply shameful part of France’s history. Except that what is even more worrying and shameful is that large scale cover-ups, the concept of obeying orders without question, systems protecting their own despite betraying principles of justice, and inherent racism are not endemic flaws peculiar to late nineteenth and early twentieth century France
The infamous Dreyfus affair involved a Jewish army officer, Alfred Dreyfus, who was convicted of spying for Germany, in 1895. There was certainly a spy within the French army, a man who was violent, untrustworthy, and with gambling debts and a mistress as well as a wife to support. But that man was not Alfred Dreyfus. Dreyfus was a loyal and conscientious, if not particularly likeable, officer. The question which must be asked is – was Dreyfus not particularly likeable, or was he not particularly likeable because he was Jewish – anti-Semitism was deeply entrenched in society. A culture of what we have learned to define as Institutional Racism was certainly present – but not just within Institutions
Dreyfus was convicted because as a Jew he was the automatic one to suspect, even though, right from the start, the evidence was circumstantial, and largely turning on evidence from a graphologist. However, as the expert graphologists disagreed as to whether writing was Dreyfus’s or not, investigations into Dreyfus being the spy quickly became slewed to create and falsify the evidence with the sole aim to prove the Jew’s guilt, rather than continue to investigate who the spy really was. Jewish, therefore guilty.
Dreyfus was sent to Devil’s Island, and was the only prisoner there, kept in appalling conditions of barbaric inhumanity.
An army officer, who had in part been involved in the initial capture and prosecution of Dreyfus, Georges Picquart, had been promoted to head of the army intelligence unit. Originally believing in Dreyfus’ guilt, he ended up uncovering the truth, and that the conviction of Dreyfus had been a sham. However, this is only the beginning of the bizarre events which transpired. On laying his suspicions and discoveries about the real spy, in front of superiors, ranks closed against Picquart. An extremely loyal Frenchman and army officer, who also had absorbed the anti-Semitism of his society, Picquart still felt justice was the most important factor, above loyalty to the organisation or the country. In fact, how could loyalty to injustice serve anyone’s interest?
In a truth is much stranger than fiction development, the inability of the army, the judiciary and the politicians to admit they had made a huge mistake in convicting Dreyfus, led to a bizarre investigation whereby anyone involved in trying to uncover the truth of the affair, – including Picquart himself, became the subject of allegations of treason. In refusing at an early stage to admit a wrong conviction, the cover-up of the cover-up got deeper, weirder and more criminally psychotic.
Harris presents the whole history of this shocking event, and his novelist’s sense fleshes out what might otherwise be incredibly complicated transcipts.
Although I did know about the Dreyfus affair, mainly because of the involvement of the French realist novelist Emile Zola in publicising the infamy of the State machinery, with his famous J’Accuse letter in L’Aurore on the 13th January 1898, I did not appreciate the full depth and complexity of this most infamous, deliberately constructed miscarriage of justice.
I sacrificed a night’s sleep to this book, truly unable to put it down.