***** An Officer and a Spy

Emile Zola, DreyfusBy Robert Harris (read by David Rintoul) –This novelization of the infamous Dreyfus affair in turn-of-the-20th Century Paris starts slowly, then builds powerfully. French Army Officer Alfred Dreyfus, a Jew, was sentenced to life imprisonment on aptly named Devil’s Island on flimsy and trumped-up evidence that he was a spy. As the book’s narrator, Lt. Col. Georges Picquart, gradually discovers, a spy remains in the French military command and, if so, he begins to suspect and then believe that Dreyfus is innocent.

As in the present day, it isn’t so much the original crime—in this case, convicting an innocent man—that creates all the problems, it’s the cover-up. The book is full of real-life characters of the time with whom I was passingly familiar—Georges Clemenceau, Émile Zola (J’Accuse!), Picquart, who rose to be Minister of War after Dreyfus’s release, and of course, Dreyfus. Learning how they out-maneuvered the army’s top generals is riveting, even though you know they ultimately succeed. Alphonse Bertillon, the originator of concepts of scientific policing reappears, with some dubious handwriting analyses; his contributions were explored more fully in The Crimes of Paris, which I read last year.

Louis Begley’s New York Times review would have had the book provide more context about French society at the time, though some of his examples are to me pretty clear: the high position of the army in society and “the extraordinary wave of virulent anti-Semitism that had washed over France since the 1880s.”

The Dreyfus case still resonates today, not least because of the resurgence of anti-Semitism in Europe from both the left and right wings and the growing Muslim communities. Coincidentally last weekend, I attended a reading and discussion of a new play by McCarter Theatre’s Emily Mann, Hoodwinked, about the shootings at Ft. Hood and the friction between tolerance and intolerance within radical Islam and outside it. Looking back on Dreyfus, it’s easy to see where the players went wrong out of prejudice, self-interest, and absolutism. We see events in our own time through these same distorting lenses and, therefore, unclearly.