A Q&A with Robert Harris

Robert Harris’ latest book, An Officer And A Spy, is a fictional account of the Dreyfus Affair.  This is a thrilling historical novel that delves into the world of espionage, conspiracy, and corruption surrounding the persecution of an army officer for the sole reason he was Jewish. Although most people know of this historical tragic event, readers will be interested to find out how Harris has the story unfold. The focus is not so much on Dreyfus as it is on Colonel Georges Picquart.  After becoming the head of the counterespionage agency, Picquart stumbles upon information that leads him to change his mind from considering Dreyfus guilty to now believing in his innocence.  He is compelled to question not only the case against Dreyfus but also his most deeply held beliefs about his country, and about himself.

Elise Cooper:  Why did you decide to write about this subject?

Robert Harris:  It grew out of a conversation with Roman Polanski when I made a film, The Ghost Writer, with him a couple of years ago.  We talked about doing another project together.  I thought about Dreyfus because he had a lot of books about this subject in his office.  He told me he always wanted to make a movie about this. After I wrote the novel we wrote the screenplay together, which we finished a few weeks ago.

EC: Why write it from Picquart’s point of view?

RH:  The Dreyfus Affair is so complicated and huge with so many people and events I needed to put a focus to the story.  Since Dreyfus did not even know who the real spy was there was no point in going at this from his point of view.  This is the largest book I have ever written.  The only way I could turn this into a story, a work of the imagination, was to pick one character.  I told the story through his eyes. I told the story as if Picquart had written his secret memoir and had locked it away in a vault.

EC:  It seems in the book that Dreyfus was a concept, not a person.  Did you do that intentionally?

RH:  Yes.  Although Dreyfus was extremely heroic and was able to survive such an ordeal he was unable to do very much.  I wrote it from Picquart’s reflection on and what he thought of Dreyfus.  I used Dreyfus’ letters, which Picquart saw, to try and affect the story.  Since Dreyfus did not find out anything for himself, but depended on others, he had in the book a powerful ghostly and haunting presence.  Remember Dreyfus was seized, locked up, and shipped to Devil’s Island.

EC:  Can you talk a little about Picquart?

RH:  There would not have been a Dreyfus Affair without Picquart.  He was the one who did the detective work and had to face the moral dilemma:  Should he go along with his comrades for the sake of an institution he loved, the army, or did he say to hell with that and tell the truth.  The character that was very dynamic and changed everything was Picquart.

EC:  You write in the book many instances of French society screaming out “Jewish traitor.”  Did you do it to show the anti-Semitism of the French?

RH:  I think French society anti-Semitism started after the Germans beat them in 1870.  This nationalism soul searching began when the Germans beat Napoleon.  They started to look for scapegoats that corrupted French society.  This led them to anti-Semitism, which became the focus of the Dreyfus Affair.  People were killed, there were riots and the nation became convulsed by it.

EC:  Was Picquart guilty of anti-Semitism and participating in the conspiracy?

RH:  He did not know Dreyfus very well, but what he knew, he did not like him very much. He had attended the trial and approved of the idea of using secret intelligence against Dreyfus to convict him.  Early on I think he was anti-Semitic.  However, I want to qualify that to say it was socially accepted at that time, especially among the Catholics.  I think that as he found more and more evidence proving Dreyfus innocent he became conscious of his own anti-Semitism and fought against it in his own head.  I really believe that an anti-Semite would not have done what he did, including befriending Dreyfus’ brother Matthew.

EC:  Were all the events realistic?

RH:  The suicides, court-martials, trials, duels, assassination attempts, and public outcries are all true.  I really did not make up very much.  I obviously had to get into Picquart’s head.  Even the scene where the army tells Picquart’s mistresses husband about the affair was true. Pauline and he continued the relationship all his life. Of course, I had to invent a lot of their relationship.  None of the figures in the book are fictional.  Even the doorkeepers and the concierge are all real.

EC:  What type of research did you do?

RH:  I did extensive research.  I found only one letter between Pauline and Picquart, which I put in the book.  I read documents, all the trial transcripts, newspaper accounts of the time, the secret dossier, and all the published books I could find on this issue.

EC:  There is a powerful quote in the book, “So this is what the Army of France has sunk to.  Either they are the greatest fools in Europe or the greatest villains:  for the sake of my country I am not sure which is worse.  But some instinct for self-preservation warns me not to fight them now.” Can you explain?

RH:  Picquart did not want to destroy the army and smash up his career.  He did not want to bring down the institution he worked for and loved, the army. This is why he decided not to go immediately to the politicians and newspapers.  He accepted the discipline of being sent away to Africa.  Only when he realized he was never going to be brought back to France and nothing would happen unless he spoke up, he decided to act.  There was a period of six months where he just sweats it out, hoping that the Dreyfus family will get a breakthrough or his superiors will be convinced to do something.  When he realized that would not happen he acted. What is interesting to me is how people closed ranks and justified to themselves lying was for the greater good.  I think this is the biggest conspiracy cover-up ever.

EC:  What do you want readers to get out of the book?

RH:  This is a story of anti-Semitism and the cover-up occurred because there was no desire to take the army apart piece by piece.  It was seen as the only institution in France that really worked and the one thing that held the nation together.  There was no desire to create a national nightmare.  I hope that the readers will see everything that transpired from the corruption, the persecution of a minority, the use of national security to stifle debate, and the use of intelligence, all of which speaks to our modern age.  I also hope the readers will see Picquart as someone who believed in honor, truth, and who would be able to look himself in the mirror.