I recently finished reading An Officer and a Spy by Robert Harris, and I can’t remember the last time I was this excited about a book. It tells the story of Alfred Dreyfus, found guilty of espionage in 1895 France and of Georges Picquart who uncovers the truth.
Harris describes it as a thriller, and it’s obviously historical fiction, but he says himself in his Author’s Note: “None of the characters in the pages that follow, not even the most minor, is wholly fictional, and almost all of what occurs, at least in some form, actually happened in real life.”
That raises the question: to what extent is this a work of fiction? How close is it to a work of pure history? Harris is aware of this conundrum, for the next paragraph in his Author’s Note attempts to dispel the notion that the book is pure history:
“Naturally, however, in order to turn history into a novel, I have been obliged to simplify, to cut out some figures entirely, to dramatise, and to invent many personal details…”
My own feeling is that this is as close a reconstruction of the events of the case as one could devise, presented in the form of a novel.
I call it Historical Journalism. It’s as if Robert Harris transported himself back in time to the end of the nineteenth century and recorded what he observed.
His Pompeii is similar, in that he constructed a facsimile of the doomed population of that town from the available evidence. In that book, the characters were pure constructs of Harris’s rich imagination built from the petrified remains left behind by the volcano, together with a scholarly knowledge of the social strata of the time.
In An Officer and a Spy he is working with more accessible material.
The book is written in the present tense. This is a device used by thriller writers to heighten tension and bring the story into the reader’s “now”. In the case of this book it also provides a clear demarkation during the narration of events recently past.
However we classify the book, it’s a marvelous piece of work. Robert Harris continues to amaze me with his scholarship, his genius, on so many levels.