Of the six members at this get-together, half of them found that the subject matter did not make for an easy read over the Christmas holidays and they did not finish the book. However, the other readers found it to be a compelling read and very much enjoyed both the story and the way in which it was told.
The narrative was found to be a slow burner at the start, which picked up pace as Picquart’s investigations progressed.
The majority of the group’s members had not read any Robert Harris before and opinion was divided over who would try another of his titles (e.g. Enigma, The Ghost Writer, Archangel and so on). This led to a side conversation on Bletchley Park (where Enigma was largely based) and people expressing an interest in visiting this location. While most found the style of the novel very readable, some found the large number of characters to be confusing. The ‘cast list’ was helpful here.
Picquart was admired for his strong moral code and his courage in being willing to give up his career, his relationship, and even his life (when he realised he was being led into a desert ambush) for his beliefs, in pursuing his investigation into the truth of the allegations against Dreyfus.
In contrast, while we felt sympathy and compassion for Dreyfus and his appalling treatment on Devil’s Island, Dreyfus himself was quite an unsympathetic character, especially at the end of the book, when, in the climactic meeting with Picquart, he did not express any thanks for the efforts to release him but wanted restoration, and even promotion, of his rank instead. He was a broken man after his imprisonment, but he did recover, and the belief of his family and the support of the French liberal intellectuals meant that he was never forgotten.
Jacquie remarked how interesting she found it when an author takes real events and fictionalises them. However, this also raises the question: how much is the truth massaged; for instance, was Picquart’s affair with Pauline true?
Comments were also made about the senior army officers – their self-satisfaction and the scale of the conspiracy constructed around Dreyfus, who was a perfect scapegoat.
The political background of the novel was also interesting to the group – the French/German tensions of that period, and the ‘outsider’ status of the Alsatians (Picquart/Dreyfus) – against our foreknowledge that the First World War was not far off.
Jacqui likes historical fiction and biographies, so this title appealed to her and she could envision it as a powerful TV miniseries, in which the courtroom aspect of the narrative would work especially well.
The author’s use of the present tense throughout gives the story a particular sense of immediacy. By the conclusion, Harris makes it clear that none of the main protagonists in the story were untouched by what had happened, whether it was the initial cover up or the subsequent conspiracy, with some dramatic consequences (for example, the fates of Henry and Labori).
Towards end of the meeting, Jacqui mentioned that, knowing that the characters were real people had inspired her to need to see them. She circulated pictures from a website (http://www.dreyfus.culture.fr/en/index.htm & http://www.dreyfus.culture.fr/en/bio/bio-html-georges-picquart.htm) of the main characters, and told us that Picquart died in 1914 as the result of a fall from a horse. People commented on how closely the individuals resembled their expectations. Copies of the original documents (the ‘petit bleu’ etc.) are also available there.
It was fascinating to think that this case was one of the first high-profile media causes célèbres, such that it was subsequently studied by schoolchildren in their history lessons. It is hard to think of a modern parallel, although comparisons were drawn between Devil’s Island and Guantanamo. Reading this story made the current publicity surrounding anti-Semitism in Europe particularly resonant.
Overall, the volume provoked a lively discussion and was an interesting contrast with the genres covered in recent meetings.