It must be a nervy business being Robert Harris’s publisher. On the one hand, you have an international brand-name thriller writer whose book sales exceed 10million. On the other, you never quite know what he’s going to deliver next. Many authors would have been forgiven for milkingFatherland – his bestselling, what-if debut novel – for a few Nazi sequels, but in the subsequent 20 years Harris has turned his hand to code-breaking (Enigma), modern Russia (Archangel), ancient Rome (Pompeii, Lustrum), Tony Blair (The Ghost) and a very 21st-century financial meltdown (The Fear Index).
So it comes as no surprise to discover that his latest novel takes readers off in a completely new direction, this time to late-19th-century Paris. An Officer and a Spy retells the Dreyfus affair, one of the great miscarriages of justice and a true story that resonates with modern parallels (think secret trials, Guantánamo and whistleblowers).
It’s told through the eyes of Colonel Georges Picquart of the French Army who realises that his fellow officer Alfred Dreyfus, a Jew, has been falsely accused of leaking secrets to the Germans. When Dreyfus is convicted of treason and sentenced to solitary confinement on Devil’s Island, off the coast of South America, Picquart must decide whether to take on the army, intelligence services and government to prove his innocence. It’s a question of duty and principle faced by every whistleblower down the ages: follow his conscience or be loyal to his superiors.
“Over lunch in Paris two years ago, I happened to ask Roman Polanski [who directed the film of The Ghost] if he had ever considered doing the Dreyfus affair,” Harris, 56, tells me at his Victorian vicarage in West Berkshire. “I had seen some books in his office and he said that he’d always wanted to do it, but he had never been able to find a story. I said I’d take a look. And almost from the moment I started reading about Dreyfus, I saw that at the heart of the whole thing is a brilliant spy story, which has tended to be lost in all the social commentary about anti-Semitism.”
It’s also a compelling tale of power, cover-ups and idealism – meat and drink for Harris, a former political journalist. In some ways, the only surprise is that he hasn’t turned to the subject before. As far back as 2001, he was comparing the treatment of his close friend Peter Mandelson, who had just been sacked for the second time by Tony Blair, to the Dreyfus affair.
“The thing I like doing is writing about power and structures and how they affect life. In this case you really see a model of how bureaucracies in any society and at any time cover up their mistakes, and how they will square this in their own conscience by saying that it’s for the greater good. I found writing the book quite radicalising in a way. I don’t think I will ever look at the government and armed forces and institutions generally in the same way again.”
Harris was helped in his research by the French government’s recent decision to make available online all the secret files relating to the case(affairedreyfus.com). At the rotten heart of the conspiracy against Dreyfus was an intelligence unit called the Statistical Section, located in crumbling offices behind the Ministry of War.
“A bit like MI5 in the early Seventies, the Statistical Section was going rogue and made up of a group of quite paranoid Right-wing figures. When you write historical books, you bring what you know about the present to it. And I’m sure that little set-up [the Statistical Section] was like Peter Wright’s MI5, seeing traitors everywhere, breaking into things, forging things, generally quite out of control.”
The figure of Picquart – cool, aloof, highly intelligent – provided Harris with his introduction to a large cast of characters that includes ministers of war, generals, spooks, lawyers, gay diplomats, forgers and handwriting experts. Intriguingly, there was little love lost between Picquart and the man whose freedom he was fighting for. “I love that understatement in their relationship. These two men were utterly entwined and dependent on each other, and yet there was no contact between them.”
Harris says that if he had been writing a screenplay, he might have been tempted to up the feelgood factor and bring the two men closer together. But he had agreed with Polanski that he would do the novel first and work on a film afterwards.
Harris wrote an acclaimed screenplay for the The Ghost, but he was recently fired from the film of his last thriller, The Fear Index, something that clearly still rankles.
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