Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction: shortlist reviews
An Officer and a Spy, by Robert Harris. Review by Jonathan Tweedie, of Brewin Dolphin
In his page turning novel, An Officer and a Spy, Robert Harris has masterfully brought to life perhaps, until recently, the world’s most infamous miscarriage of justice story: that of Alfred Dreyfus, through the eyes of the whistle blower Major Georges Picquart.
While many readers may know of the tale of treachery, deceit and corruption within the French military and political classes, which results in Dreyfus being incarcerated on Devil’s Island and Picquart having his career, reputation and almost life destroyed, few will know much about it. The story is one packed with intrigue, conspiracy and wrong doing.
Dreyfus is convicted in 1895 of passing secrets to France’s most feared enemy, Germany, and consequently spends the next 11 years in such a severe solitary confinement on Devil’s Island that even the guards are forbidden to speak to him.
He is innocent, but makes a convenient scapegoat for the Army, being Jewish, wealthy and from the recently no longer French but now German region of Alsace. The real spy, a non-Jewish minor aristocrat, is left at large and even defended by the establishment, rather than admit their mistake.
Our hero, a high-flying young army officer being prepared for the very highest echelons of the military, unearths the treachery and then cannot let it go. Despite his own anti-Semitic tendencies he sacrifices everything to see justice done.
Harris stays true to time and place, understanding and treating with great sympathy the sense of loyalty and honour of many of the lead characters.
One can not help but draw comparison with Edward Snowden, when one considers the might of the State being turned upon the individual, but what makes this book so compelling is the ease at which Harris put you back into late 19th century France. The tension he creates at the degradation of Dreyfus is almost unbearable, while it would be a stony heart that is not touched by the picture painted through his letters home of the torture and suffering on Devil’s Island.
There is no doubt that there is a great deal of historical faction in this wonderful novel, but what makes it a contender for the Walter Scott Prize is the way Harris brings the time and characters to life.
As he himself admits “ the various sleights of hand in narrative and characterisation invariably required to turn fact into fiction, remain my sole responsibility” . So good a storyteller is Harris that even the most treacherous characters are understandable, and even almost defendable. This is a stunning book that deserves its place amongst the front runners for this year’s prize.