An Officer and a Spy – Robert Harris

[This is a journal in 5 sections. I never start reading a new section until I finish writing about the one before, so I didn’t know how any of it would turn out until I finished.]

6 October 2014
Chapters 1-7…
…which make up roughly the first quarter of the novel. I mention this because I suspect Robert Harris is very careful about how he paces the different stages of his narrator’s growing understanding of things. He is Georges Picquart, promoted very early on in the novel to be the chief of the French military secret service, and Harris has him tell his story entirely in the present tense: he has none of the benefit of hindsight. The Dreyfus Affair proved to be one of the most infamous travesties of justice in modern history, but at the beginning Picquart is just like everyone else. With the comfortable anti-Semitism of the officer class he is able to describe Dreyfus looking down on the ‘haberdashery’ which are the rags of the braid and insignias torn theatrically from his uniform. He describes to a fellow officer what he can see through binoculars: ‘He looks… like a Jewish tailor counting the cost of all that gold braid going to waste. If he had a tape measure round his neck….’ And so on.

Picquart doesn’t approve of the ritual ‘degradation’ of the ceremony, but at this early point he is utterly certain of Dreyfus’s guilt. He remains so throughout the first 100 pages, so that even a flippant comment by his latest lover on page 101 doesn’t shake him. If Armand Du Paty had anything to do with the case, she says, ‘the poor Jew is bound to turn out to be innocent.’ But some shadow of a seed of doubt must have been sown, and the reader is alerted to the possibility that there are ordinary people even within Picquart’s circle for whom the idea of a miscarriage of justice is not impossible.

For the next 50 pages – that is, to the point I’ve reached – his certainties don’t seem so unshakable. We begin to see how this man will eventually become the one to investigate the goings-on that have led to an innocent man suffering a kind of hellish showpiece imprisonment to go with the showpiece degradation. He wonders – although he doesn’t yet suspect the conspiracy the reader is looking out for – why so much money is being spent on staffing a prison colony for one on an island thousands of miles away. Even early on, Picquart had referred to the man’s fate on Devil’s Island as somewhat ‘Dumas’, as tactful a form of words as he could think of to voice his disquiet. Whatever Picquart’s initial prejudices, Harris shows us right from the start that this is a man who looks at things with a highly objective eye.

There’s something else that subtly reassures us that we’re going to be in safe hands with this man. (I might be referring to Harris himself in that sentence, but in fact I mean Picquart.) He speaks with a thoroughly modern voice, because Harris has no interest in distancing him from us through the archaic forms of words a highly educated 19th Century man might really use. Notwithstanding the highly plausible fin-de-siècle details of his social life and the day-to-day running of his department – I’ll come back to those – we are definitely in the company of a completely modern consciousness. No, not that exactly…. What I’m sure we’re going to get, because the foundations are all there, is the stripping away of 19th Century prejudice until Picquart will be just like you and me. Most of the time he sounds just like you and me already.

Other impressive things about this book are the historical context I hinted at and the plausible, measured way that Harris has Picquart impose his more rational outlook on the threadbare department he has taken over. Paris seems tiny – or, rather, the circles he moves in occupy a tiny, prosperous section – and he knows his place in it. He tells us the duties of the (not rich) 40-year-old bachelor, accepting invitations not only because they offer a meal-ticket but because urbane, witty bachelors are popular additions to any guest-list. He has a mistress… and it’s by way of one particular evening with her that we see how much of a goldfish-bowl this little world is. The host’s sister has mischievously invited her, and it becomes excruciating: someone in his position simply cannot be seen to be having an affair with the wife of someone known to the whole circle. The woman is so uncomfortable she allows the affair to fizzle out after that night. The sister becomes his next mistress….

At work things are equally complicated, but Harris endows Picquart with what seems an unerring instinct for management that gets him through. I was wondering whether he’s perhaps too sure-footed in his new-broom dealings with the men under him… but then I thought that maybe Harris is preparing us for a fall. We might have witnessed a minor one already as his predecessor plays down the significance of Picquart’s first independent investigation. The name of well-connected but debt-ridden officer called Esterhazy, in the backwater of Rouen, has been linked with that of a diplomat at the German embassy. The department’s long-established contact, a cleaner in the embassy, makes regular timed drops of the contents of her bosses’ waste-paper bins, and two carefully pieced-together drafts make it clear that Esterhazy is up to something. Amid the cloak-and-dagger proceedings that Harris even has Picquet mocking we glimpse the skills of the under-cover agent. Five hours of piecing together a page torn to tiny pieces, the procedures for picking up, the constant vigilance…. And in Chapter 8 we’ve had Picquart’s latest independent project, setting up a snooping base opposite the German Embassy, in an apartment above one regularly used by the Germans. But this isn’t a game, and Harris is keen for us to know in an author’s note that he isn’t making it up.

In the year since Dreyfus’s degradation Picquart has set about separating himself from his predecessor’s methods. He’s already well used to keeping everything on a need-to-know basis, in both his work and private life. He doesn’t tell his friends anything about what he does, and he doesn’t necessarily tell everything to the old hands in the dilapidated premises where they are based. Alongside the removal to within the Ministry or, at least, a thorough redecoration the old place is an almost too perfect symbol of the old ways he’s trying to clean up. (Harris uses descriptions of people in the same way. Esterhazy, for instance, in his red-faced, thick-set swaggering pomp is the physical essence of his own personality. Along with the architecture, it’s the novel’s most Dickensian feature.)

And all the time he gains new insights into Dreyfus himself. Letters between him and his wife are heavily censored, and often remain undelivered in a department safe. And despite his initial scepticism – the prisoner’s denials are typical, he thinks, of the convicted liar – we know that Dreyfus’s horror at the injustice of his own plight, presented verbatim, is having its effect on Picquart. If he’s one of us in the way I think he is, he’s as appalled as we are.

8 October
Chapters 8-13…
…to the half-way point, and I’m not at all surprised that now is when we reach the crisis that is the crux of the whole novel. Long before this, Picquart has realised something the reader has known all along: ‘I seem to have ceased to be an army officer and become a detective,’ he writes after yet another unexpected development. But the detective work appears to be complete, and in the second half of the novel he will have to use other skills.

Everything has just come together at once. For some time Picquart has had irrefutable evidence not only that Esterhazy – yes, the same one – is the real spy but that other evidence was concocted to ensure that Dreyfus was convicted. At the half-way point has just presented this to his superiors and, except for one of them, he has been met with a stark refusal to reopen the case. (He’s also received a severe rebuke from the first of them for not dropping it when told to do so.) Meanwhile, during the very same week, supporters of Dreyfus have begun a high-profile newspaper campaign to discredit the evidence against him and get him released. As if to signal the cataclysm facing Picquart, Harris has him leaving the scene of his reprimand to be confronted by the famous Paris hurricane of 12 September 1896. ‘The wind takes roofs off,’ he writes, but doesn’t seem to recognise the symbolic significance for him: ‘privately I am relieved: the press will have other things to talk about for the next few days.’ We know what he doesn’t: the perfect storm is only just beginning.

Much more has happened in these chapters than clever detective work. In fact, following a single spying coup – photographs of Esterhazy entering the German Embassy with a package and leaving empty-handed – the man working at the secret apartment with its spy-holes and listening tubes has been driven almost demented with boredom. All Picquart has to do to get one of the two main pieces of evidence is to pull rank on the section’s reluctant archivist – dried-up and papery-skinned to a degree that makes him one of Harris’s Dickensian grotesques – and the other falls straight into his lap. The first is the secret dossier of evidence passed to the judge during the court-martial, contrary to all the rules – and, contrary to instructions, kept by Picquart’s predecessor. The second is an application letter that Esterhazy has sent to the Ministry. In it the handwriting is patently identical to that in the list passed to the Germans, supposedly proven to be written by Dreyfus. What makes it much more interesting is that suddenly Picquart feels implicated in the whole shabby business: he was the man who, unaware of its contents, passed the dossier to the judge.

To make it work, Harris has to have Picquart, in the guise of musings he has whilst pursuing the case, fill in the back story. It doesn’t all come at once. Harris as careful as ever to feed us with Picquart’s often guilty memories interspersed with new material from his investigations and, occasionally, a new letter from Dreyfus. The first flashback covers his acquaintance with Dreyfus over a number of years. He started off as one of Dreyfus’s professors in the military academy – this was his job before his career-minded move into the war ministry – then as one of his mentors inside the ministry when the ex-students were doing a kind of internship. Harris has his narrator remember the little social gaucheries and gaffes that made the upper-class Dreyfus unpopular. He remembers how Dreyfus tried to get him to bump up his exam mark, the lowest he had received in any discipline, and how he, Picquart, had stood his ground.

This all fits in well when, in another flashback (or later in the same one), the Ministry is told that there is a spy in their midst. It doesn’t take long for Dreyfus to be named as a suspect: he is always asking questions, he has been in all the departments (as have all the interns), nobody really likes him and, most crucially of all, he’s a Jew. What loyalty do Jews have to one country? – et cetera, et cetera. All the latent anti-Semitism comes flooding out as, in an act of collective wishful-thinking, they breathe a sigh of relief that they can all stop suspecting one another at last. Once a trap has been laid to ensure that Dreyfus’s arrest can be carried out with as little publicity as possible, Picquart finds himself involved. He knows nothing of what goes on behind the scenes as du Paty, in charge the case and Mercier, the then War Minister – and others – set things up between them. But he is the one delegated to escort Dreyfus to the meeting which is really a trap, and he is the one, supposedly merely an observer, who hands over that dossier to the judge.

It’s in his role as observer at the court martial that he learns to tell the Minister what he wants to hear. It’s only with hindsight that he realises this is what he was doing, but he offers no special pleading. It’s enough for the reader that this man, one of us in the guise of a 19th Century lieutenant-colonel, is being forced to look deep into his own soul. What is spelled out at one point – I can’t remember who says it – is that Mercier regarded him as his errand-boy. (This chimes very closely with the way he reports the degradation ceremony to Mercier in Chapter 1.) He’s trusted to go along with his superior’s decisions – how else does he think he walked so easily into such a plum job? But this time, having previously allowed himself to be carried along and turning a blind eye to his own misgivings, he can do the right thing.

The idea of chief of the secret service as a job for a yes-man chimes with what Harris has been feeding us about Picquart’s predecessor. Harris is very happy to let us know that this man was forced into retirement by tertiary syphilis – you couldn’t make it up – and we remember that he was the one who told Picquart he was wasting his time over a minor player like Esterhazy. And it’s Henry, a subordinate under the old regime and now under Picquart, who played a central role in putting together the dossier. Before Picquart finds out about his tendencies, Henry cleverly insinuates his way into an interview with an agent in Switzerland which was supposed to have confirmed that the Germans have always declared: they never had dealings with anyone called Dreyfus. He sabotages the meeting so that nothing useful is revealed. And at the court martial Henry, putting on a show-stopping performance Picquart now sees as worthy of the Comédie-Française, had made a show of his reluctance to name Dreyfus as the guilty man.

As ever in spy thrillers, the main protagonist only slowly learns who is not to be trusted. His predecessor, Henry and most of his superiors all seem to be in cahoots to maintain the status quo. So far only X, the Minister of War who replaced Mercier – and who was not closely involved in the Dreyfus case – is happy to let Picquart get on with his investigations. Luckily, it’s by way of one of those little physical details Harris likes so much that Picquart has a direct route through the back garden from his own office to the Ministry. Nobody else needs to see him come and go.

What else? Plenty. Harris likes to give his characters real lives to lead, full of accidental detail. Picquart is compassionate when Henry’s mother is dying – and then his own dies. We find out that the affair he was having at the beginning of the novel has lasted for years, and is back on again by the point I’ve reached. His sister fears it’s how he likes it, thinks he lacks adult commitment. One of the generals he goes to see with the new evidence is in his garden, and we can picture this man who seems far more at home there than at work – while the short doorstep meeting he has with du Paty in his novel-writing gear reveals the man in all his self-regarding absurdity. (We also find out, in one of the most pointed footnotes I’ve ever read in a novel, that du Paty’s one-year-old son will, in the 1940s, be in charge of Jewish affairs under the Vichy regime. And we all know what that means.)

I’m more impressed by this novel the more I read.

Chapters 14-15 – to the end of Part 1
Before these two terrifying chapters it had seemed that Picquart, with his useful little key to the back door of the Ministry, had a way to short-circuit army procedure. The Minister had been the only man to show any interest in his findings after he had gone behind his army bosses’ backs, and his only worry was about the unwelcome newspaper publicity about the case. But the hurricane he thought had blown the case off the front pages has blown him right off the investigation. Even before he is sent into a kind of metaphorical exile at the end of Part 1 – he is dispatched on a pointless inspection of the army in the east with a minder on his tail to make sure he gets on the train – he already feels he is a dead man.

During these pages his army bosses, increasingly, make no secret of the fact that Dreyfus’s innocence is of no interest to them. They thought they had make it clear that his researches were to stop, and when they realise he is carrying on with them they are swift and ruthless in their response. The first sign is that his key no longer works. Even inside his own department, trusting nobody, he has to use lock-picking tools to reach the material that reveals how the case against Dreyfus was put together. And he discovers that weeks before the court martial Mercier and all the others knew perfectly well that the ‘D’ mentioned in a key enemy message did not refer to Dreyfus but to a spy called Dubois. Picquart has cast-iron proof not only that Dreyfus was innocent but that the men prosecuting him were perfectly aware of that fact.

And there’s the rub. No new investigation is possible without implicating a lot of top army men in a conspiracy as, in the weeks leading up to the court martial, the army’s determination to prosecute outweighed every other consideration. We already know all about the way different handwriting experts were called on until one was willing to testify that Dreyfus wrote the incriminating message. Now Picquart finds a coded message that proved Dreyfus was unknown to the Germans and Italians, but that it kept being sent back to the de-coder so that he could come up with a translation that fitted the prosecutor’s story. And, constantly, different men remind him that nothing is at stake now but a Jew on his rock. It’s Henry who reminds him that in the army, when the order comes to fire, you shoot without asking questions – and if it turns out you shot the wrong man there’s no point in worrying about it. I think it’s Gosse who sarcastically asks Picquart if the army is to be blown apart because of the pangs of conscience of one man who should have left well alone.

This is what is so terrifying, and this is when Picquart begins to feel like a dead man. All that he knows is of no use to Dreyfus – whose treatment, meanwhile, is becoming more brutal. It seems like vindictiveness, that the government is punishing him because they can’t punish his family and the other campaigners. But it’s more calculating than that. All along, Harris has been having Picquart drop hints that the army wants Dreyfus dead. We realise that the new punishment – fixed leg-irons that he has to wear all night, and that Picquart knows will cut his ankles to the bone – is designed to encourage life-threatening infections. The cynicism is breathtaking.

There’s one other historical detail that Harris keeps weaving in and out of the narrative. The Tsar is on a high-profile official visit to seal the alliance between France and Russia against Germany. Picquart’s bosses present it to him that even if he is right, an investigation that would certainly damage the army at this time would wreck the new treaty. It would be a form of treason. Meanwhile the Tsar’s progress along the streets presents Harris with another angle on things. The husband of Pauline, his mistress, tells him she can accompany him on the official platform. It’s a mistake. His ‘bourgeois’ staff don’t like this demonstration of Paris morality, and it becomes another barrier between them. It runs alongside Picquart’s firm belief that Henry is the man who framed Dreyfus, confirmed almost beyond doubt when Picquart speaks to the man who had arranged the failed meeting in Switzerland. The man was going to tell all, but Henry did everything in his power to make sure he didn’t.

12 October
Chapters 16-19…
…which take us more or less half-way through Part 2. It begins with Picquart in de facto exile seven months after leaving Paris – that silly inspection in the east was a trap, to be followed in quick succession by a string of others, more and more remote, until he had washed up in Tunisia – and is about the fight back. But chapter by chapter, it becomes clear how far the army will go in order to prevent the truth from being told. At the point I’ve reached, Picquart’s bosses and the men who used to work under him have conspired to fabricate enough evidence not only to exonerate Esterhazy in a charade of a court martial, but to implicate Picquart in activities that almost amount to treason. For some time, he has known where all this is leading. He’s now been arrested, and is on his way to face whatever his army bosses are going to throw at him.

Except it isn’t all going the army’s way. In Harris’s presentation of him, Picquart is a determined and enterprising adversary, and his campaign begins as he languishes in his brick hut in the middle of nowhere. He is finally goaded into action when a blandly pointless correspondence with Henry turns into something else when Picquart tells him he resents the lies being told about him. Henry’s reply, clearly dictated by his bosses, is chilling. Numbered points make it clear that if Picquart doesn’t keep quiet, he will be the next one under investigation. His response is to go above his immediate superiors to get permission for a week’s leave to Paris. He’s gone as far as he can by sticking to protocol. Now he’s going to be a whistle-blower.

There are omens on the ferry journey to Marseilles. In the cabin that feels like a hot metal cell – he daren’t go on deck in public for fear of being recognised – he identifies with Dreyfus. Apt quotations leap out at him from the Dostoevsky translation he’s doing to keep his mind occupied…. In Paris he presents a sixteen-paragraph summary of his investigation to Leblois, his friend and lawyer. We know what a village Paris is, so we are not surprised that Leblois knows someone who will use the evidence well: the vice-president of France. Having spent a brief hour with Pauline – he advises her how she can write to him without detection – he returns to Tunisia to await developments.

Nothing happens. And then, after four months, it does. Having searched in vain for any mention of Dreyfus in the papers, suddenly he’s there – and, as the story gains more and more space on the front pages, Piquart sees his own name. Soon after this he is summoned back to Paris. The man who had given him permission for his week’s leave now warns him not to stand too near the railings on the ferry… and from now on, Picquart goes nowhere without an escort or someone on his tail. He has to be rowed to the dockside in Marseilles to avoid the crowds of reporters and photographers, and huge numbers of them become the norm wherever he goes in Paris.

There, he is taken to a hotel where his escort is to sleep in the same room. Next day he is shepherded to the inquiry purportedly set up to investigate the case against Esterhazy – and he realises immediately that he is the one under investigation. General Pellieux uses the technique that Picquart is very familiar with, of asking quick-fire questions repeatedly, sometimes over more than one day, and shows him things that have clearly been planted in his own files. They are seeking to implicate him in a conspiracy. Genuine evidence has been tampered with, so that now the original message that implicated Esterhazy appears to be forged… and so on. With a kind of wonder Picquart realises that the army will resort to absolutely anything, including the exoneration of a spy, to justify the verdict against Dreyfus. (Later he refers to their behaviour as a kind of psychosis.) They also need to demonstrate that any evidence in his favour or implicating Esterhazy must have been forged. So not only are they keeping an innocent man in prison; it looks as though they’d be very happy for Picquart to join him. On the third day he states to the court that it is a sham, and leaves. He has known from the start what the verdict will be.

So, army one, Picquart nil? Not quite. In the days when he is free in Paris, albeit constantly under surveillance, he plays a trick on the two agents tailing him and attends a meeting of the men who are to become the ‘Dreyfusards’. He is introduced to various movers and shakers, culminating in the most famous of all, Emile Zola. Not long after the inevitable ‘Not guilty’ verdict on Esterhazy, as Picquart is escorted to wherever the army is going to incarcerate him, he asks permission to buy a newspaper. It is the one carrying the front page item that was to become the most famous product of the scandal: Zola’s ‘J’accuse!’ tirade. In it, he names all the men we have come to know – Mercier, Billot, Boisdeffre, Gonse and, at the head of the list, the unspeakable du Paty de Clam. One-one, I’d say. But it’s going to make life a lot harder for Picquart, I suspect.

Other things. There is the breathtaking anti-Semitism of late-19th Century Paris, so that Picquart is not at all surprised at the invention of a ‘Jewish conspiracy’ funded by ‘Jewish gold’, or to hear cries of ‘Jew-lover!’ as he leaves the court. There is the ruthlessness of the army’s invasion not only of Picquart’s privacy, but that of the people near to him. (It is their routine exposure of the affair with Pauline, leading to her husband having to throw her out for the sake of form, that stirs him to hatred and a thirst for revenge.) And there are the neatly novelistic touches that are enough to make a reader suspect that Harris is sometimes too keen to fit historical facts into a satisfying pattern. Was Picquart really translating such apt phrases from Dostoevsky as he was sailing to break apart the whole conspiracy? (‘Whether it is good or bad, it is sometimes very pleasant to smash things.’) Was Henry really so neat an illustration of his own mantra that if you tell him to shoot a man, he’ll shoot him?. (Metaphorically, the one he shoots is Picquart.) Was there really that cloak-and-dagger trick on the agents to let Picquart get to the meeting of the Dreyfusards? And did he really come across Zola’s famous ‘J’accuse!’ at the exact moment when he was being taken into custody?

Never mind. It’s a riveting read, and you know that all the important facts are true.

13 October
Chapters 20-25 and Epilogue
Often a big part of the appeal of a Robert Harris novel is how much you learn. Perhaps it’s to do with his journalistic training, but somehow there’s what feels like the right amount of history in them: I now know as much about the Dreyfus affair as I want to know. In a good way. And yet… he doesn’t win prizes in the way that, say, Hilary Mantel does. Why is that? Snobbery? Mantel certainly pushes the envelope of literary fiction in ways that Harris doesn’t – I’ve been sarcastic about his ‘novelistic’ touches, which are sometimes lacking in enough subtlety for a snob like me – but, in her case, there’s often a price to be paid. In Wolf Hall you sometimes don’t know what’s going on.

Harris is also capable of writing excellent thrillers, and this is one of them. It’s an indication of the hold this novel had on me that I wish I hadn’t known in advance that Dreyfus was not fully exonerated until 1906, seven years after the second court martial at the centre of it. But it’s an indication of Harris’s skill that he is still able to keep up the tension in and out of the courtroom. And, of course, he’s helped by extraordinary historical details like the attempted assassination of the defence lawyer. (I hope the timing of this, less than an hour before the cross-examination of a key witness, isn’t what Harris calls one of his ‘sleights of hand in narrative’: if the judges really did decide not to give any preparation time to the second-fiddle lawyer it reflects very badly on them…. Although otherwise it isn’t one of those important facts I was talking about earlier.)

Anyway. I’d left Piquart on his way to prison, and he’s ok with it. Compared to his quarters in Tunisia it has everything he wants, even a view of the Eiffel Tower, and he has no responsibilities. It doesn’t last long anyway, because the next big thing is to be the libel case that Zola has brought on himself. Unfortunately, the great man has left a huge loophole for the army’s lawyers. Picquart’s lawyer immediately sees that instead of attempting to address his central accusations, they will go for what seems an almost indefensible afterthought: in the Esterhazy court martial, he accuses the court of ‘knowingly acquitting a guilty man in obedience to orders.’ Unsurprisingly, despite the opportunity Picquart has to speak out fully in court, the judges find in the army’s favour. Picquart is kicked out of the army, and Zola is given the maximum sentence of a year’s imprisonment. He’s released on bail pending an appeal…

…but that’s not what the next bit of the novel is about. During the trial Henry had performed the same kind of courtroom histrionics against Picquart that was so effective against Dreyfus four years earlier: he turns, points at him and calls him a liar. For the first time, in public at least, Picquart loses his rag. He ends up challenging Henry to a duel, and it becomes a kind of symbolic turning-point. Henry doesn’t seem to have any desire to face Picquart, going as far as to pretend that he won’t fight a man who no longer has any honour to be defended. But Picquart doesn’t let go, and they do fight, with swords. When Henry bears down on him in a murderous rage Picquart, taken aback at first, is able to parry. He eventually wounds Henry’s arm so badly he can’t lift his sword. It’s an omen for the man who has been happy to do the army’s dirty work for too long.

There’ a different kind of symbolic resonance in a meeting Picquart has concerning Esterhazy later. A different Esterhazy tells him how his cousin, hearing his widowed aunt had a been left with a fortune, embezzled the lot while pretending to invest it on her behalf. There’s something almost psychopathic about Esterhazy’s behaviour that meshes well with that of the men protecting him. And they just carry on doing it, raising the stakes as they go. They trot out their old lies about Picquart’s dirty tricks, and have him arrested again. This time he’s in a state prison, and the conditions are much worse than the officer’s cell he had in army custody….

Meanwhile the Dreyfusards’ campaigning and publicity about conditions on Devil’s Island keep the case in the public eye. A high-profile anti-Dreyfus speech in parliament backfires and, while Picquart is out of the loop, the Supreme Court decides to bring Dreyfus home for re-run of his court martial to be held in public. Now Picquart is free to help with a new investigation, and the army top brass are on the back foot. Boisdeffre, who had made such a big thing of the secret document, is one of those to resign, and Henry is arrested when it is shown to be a crude forgery. He is already a broken man by the time he is put in a cell, and he is found dead, having apparently slit his own throat. This isn’t the first death of a man who could have done a lot of damage to the army under cross-examination. When Picquart and his trusted man from the Sûreté call on the forger who could be a key witness they find a scene from a penny dreadful: black-faced, he seems to stare out of the window – but he’s been garrotted. What was I saying about psychopaths?

The court martial takes place in Rennes, and becomes a press circus. Outside the court Picquart is in a group that knows it has the army on the run. Inside the court, Dreyfus has aged terribly in the four-and-a-half years of his imprisonment. But evidence that has been sub judice for years is now admissible, and it’s easy for Harris to demonstrate that Dreyfus has no case to answer. But one Saturday in court, Mercier makes a final dramatic push. He has political ambitions, and he is willing to tell a new lie if it will serve his purposes. In full dress uniform, making a great show of the outrage felt by a wronged man, he pretends that anything that might do harm to the army would fall right into the hands of the Germans at a time of escalating hostility. There is no such escalation but, as the lawyer puts it to Picquart, he makes it sound as though victory for Dreyfus will be a defeat for France. It’s a good job he’ll be able to pick his testimony to pieces – except he can’t. There’s an adjournment until Monday morning, which is when the lawyer is shot and badly wounded.

Upshot: Mercier is off the hook and Dreyfus is still guilty according to a majority verdict. However…. Public opinion is now such that it is soon thought politic to pardon Dreyfus. But, quite rightly, he doesn’t see this as good enough. The Dreyfusards continue their campaign, and Harris has Picquart gallop through the following years in a few paragraphs. Mercier, who tries to speak against Dreyfus’s exoneration and return to the army as a major, is ‘howled down’ in the Senate. Picquart himself is also reinstated, at a much higher rank, and is later appointed Minister of War by Clemenceau.

Harris spends more pages on a little Epilogue than on the seven years leading up to the reinstatements. Dreyfus comes to see Picquart in what feels like an echo of that earlier complaint about his exam mark. He isn’t happy with the rank of major, and wants a promotion. Picquart’s reply now is not exactly the same as it was all those years ago – politically, at this moment, it would be impossible – but it looks as though things are going to be frosty between them now as it was then. But no. Dreyfus, having reminded Picquart that they haven’t met since that day ‘when you took me to your office’ on the day of the first arrest. Picquart colours and begins to apologise, but Dreyfus stops him. ‘Ah well. You made up for it, I think!’ The last line of the novel, after Picquart says that he wouldn’t have attained such a high position without him, is Dreyfus’s reply. I found it rather moving. ‘No, my General. You attained it because you did your duty.’


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