Robert Harris is one of the most intelligent English-language novelists of our time to aim for a popular audience. His debut novel Fatherland was a gripping murder mystery set in Berlin in the year 1964, in an all too plausibly depicted alternate reality in which the Nazis won the Second World War, with all that implies for the dictum that the winners write the history books. Pompeii was wonderful. The Ghost was a devastating depiction of a high-minded but calculating former British prime minister bearing an all too credible resemblance to Tony Blair.
The Fear Index is a fascinating thriller about the dangers of computerized stock trading. And then there are Imperium and Lustrum (retitled Conspirata in the U.S.), the first two volumes of his promised trilogy on the politics of ancient Rome, narrated by Cicero’s slave Tiro. As bracing as the variety of his subject matter is, there is a unity of sensibility to Harris’s novels, and he always delivers on his promise of bracing erudition and historical, moral and political substance and perspective. In short, Harris always gives us plenty to think about, even as he entertains us magnificently.
An Officer and a Spy is as excellent as any other Robert Harris novel, with the added element of being a fictionalization of real events that have already been thoroughly documented in many nonfiction books: the notorious Dreyfus case that convulsed France in the 1890s. By choosing such a famous historical episode as his subject, Harris not only constrains himself, but paradoxically also grants himself the novelist’s license to imagine and portray the personal and moral lives of its personages. By extension, he also offers us the opportunity to reflect on how such a travesty of justice can have been perpetrated on an innocent man by a society determined to avert its eyes from its own corruption and bigotry.
The further point of such a choice, of course, is implicitly to invite us to draw parallels and implications for our own time and society. That is the real relevance of An Officer and a Spy, the real reason it was worth writing and is well worth reading now: it cuts very close indeed to the bone. If a national government’s highest officeholders are determined to collude in scapegoating a minority group and propagating a cover-up, what is the duty of an official serving under them? Indeed, what are the duties of a citizen?