Douglas Hurd on Robert Harris' An Officer and a Spy

One question above all emerges when reading this book: would we in Britain have behaved better?

An Officer and a Spy
Robert Harris
Hutchinson, 496pp, £18.99

Robert Harris is a novelist of range and depth – he moves from the Soviet Union to the politics of ancient Rome through a prime minister manufacturing his memoirs and now to France of the Third Republic convulsed by the Dreyfus case. In each book, Harris has found a way of marrying history with intelligent fiction to produce thrillers that are both insightful and gripping.

In An Officer and a Spy, Harris gives us a portrait of one institution: the French army. There are skilfully composed characters, from successive ministers of war and the chief of the intelligence department to Major Henry, the second in command of the shadowy statistical section. Each is driven by devotion to the army, right or wrong, and tested by the horrifying thought that the Jewish officer from the Alsace condemned by a court martial and sent to Devil’s Island to serve his sentence may be innocent.

The narrator is Colonel Picquart, who is promoted to run the statistical department, thus becoming the youngest colonel in the French army. Convinced of Dreyfus’s guilt at the beginning, he slowly starts to realise his innocence. However, one by one, his colleagues try to block his inquiries, arguing that loyalty to the army is the supreme good in their lives. As one of them puts it:

Now do not be such an arrogant young fool and listen to me. General Boisdeffre is about to welcome the tsar to Paris in a diplomatic coup that will change the world. We simply cannot allow ourselves to be distracted from these greater issues by the sordid matter of one Jew sent to a rock, it will tear the army to pieces.

Another officer makes the point more crudely. “He ordered me to shoot a man and I have shot him,” he says. “You tell me afterwards, I got the name wrong, and I should have shot someone else – I am very sorry about that but it is not my fault.” And so, in different accents, say the rest of them. Eventually Picquart is posted to Tunisia. Only there does he find a sympathetic fellow colonel but that officer is so disillusioned with Paris that he declines to help. Although most in the military are not in the first instance moved by anti-Jewish prejudice – their driving motive is raison d’état – they are blinded by the knowledge that Dreyfus is a Jew. The army is determined to find a German spy in its ranks and Dreyfus is suited to the role.

As newspaper leaks multiply, the “Dreyfusards” gradually gather strength; they include Clemenceau and Zola, with his article “J’accuse”. At the same time, the name Esterhazy begins to appear in documents intercepted by the French authorities. Were there two spies or is Dreyfus innocent? Doubt spreads from one newspaper to another. It is too late to undo the past; the lies have not just been told but repeated.

Ultimately a warship is sent to Devil’s Island to bring Dreyfus home and he is acquitted. The years pass; Clemenceau becomes prime minister and appoints Picquart as minister of war. The last scene is an argument between Dreyfus and Picquart about the correct rank in which Dreyfus can be brought back into the army.

One question above all emerges when reading this book: would we in Britain have handled things better? My publisher, George Weidenfeld, tells a story about leaving Austria at the time of the Anschluss. As the British consul in Vienna stamped his documents, he told Weidenfeld, “You will be safe now. We once had a Jewish prime minister in Britain.” Technically that is incorrect, because Disraeli was baptised at the age of 12 into the Church of England. But in spirit, the consul’s point was valid. Despite all the barriers, prejudices and obstacles that British Jews faced in the 19th century, Britain somehow stoppedshort of the depths of institutional persecution that scarred Europe. There was cruelty but also an element of the comic opera in the way the English considered Jewish people in these years. When Disraeli stood for election at Shrewsbury in 1841, a man arrived on a donkey saying he had come to take him back to Jerusalem. There was no such humour in the treatment of Dreyfus in Paris.

In the novel, Harris describes fishermen bringing in the daily catch. This includes some turtles, their jaws tied shut with string – all alive but blinded to prevent them from escaping. They make a noise like cobbles being cracked together as they clamber over one another, desperate to find the water they can sense but can no longer see. This is the parable that runs through the story, as the French army suffers from a similar blindness.

“Disraeli: or, the Two Lives” by Douglas Hurd and Edward Young is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson (£20)

French soldier Alfred Dreyfus on his release from prison and restoration to his army rank after the charges against him were dismissed. Image: Getty

This article first appeared in the 06 November 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Are cities getting too big?

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The Sad Part Was: this story collection puts the real Bangkok on display

Thai author Prabda Yoon descends into the voices and minds of a small cast of characters.

In Bangkok’s budding literary scene, Prabda Yoon sits at the centre. Born in 1973, he’s the scion of a well-known family (his father Suthichai Sae-Yoon is the co-founder of the Nation newspaper) and is known in Thailand as not only an enfant terrible of letters but as an illustrator, screen-writer and director (his first film, Motel Mist, was shown at European festivals in 2016).

His reputation rests mainly on a collection of short stories published in 2000 entitled in Thai Kwam Na Ja Pen, roughly translated as Probability, and it is from this early collection that most of the stories now collected in The Sad Part Was are derived. Translated with cool elegance by Mui Poopoksakul, they are among the first modern Thai stories to be published in the UK.

As Poopoksakul points out in her afterword, she and Yoon are the products of similar backgrounds and epochs: upper-middle class children of Bangkok who came to consciousness in the late Eighties and Nineties. Often foreign-educated, fluent in English and conversant in global pop culture and media – Yoon did a stint at Parsons in New York after prep school at the Cambridge School of Weston – this new generation of Thai writers and artists were born into a society changing so fast that they had to virtually invent a new language to transcribe it.

In The Sad Part Was, the result is stories that one could glibly label as “post-modern” but which, in reality, perfectly match the qualities of the megacity where they are set. Bangkok is infamously mired in lurid contradiction, but it’s also a city of subtle and distorted moods that journalism and film have hitherto mostly failed to capture. The whimsical and playful surfaces of these stories have to be read against the high-octane anxieties and surreal dislocations of what was, until recently, one of the fastest-growing cities in the world.

Yoon uses the short form of the ten-page story to descend into the voices and minds of a small cast of characters: a schoolgirl and a beautiful female teacher who form a platonic lesbian infatuation while riding a daily bus in “Miss Space”; a couple making love during a thunderstorm whose activities are interrupted by the dismantling of two giant letters, which fall onto their roof in “Something in the Air”; a young man who meets a mysterious older man in Lumpini Park called Ei Ploang, who forces him to consider the intertwined nature of good and evil. In “Snow for Mother”, a mother waits for her little boy to grow up so that she can take him to Alaska to experience the real snow, which he never knew as a little boy in the tropics.

In “The Sharp Sleeper”, a man named Natee obsesses over losing his shirt buttons and is led into a strange reverie on the nature of dreams and the competing qualities of red and yellow pyjama shirts (Thailand’s political culture is riven by two parties popularly known as Red and Yellow Shirts). The commentary slips into effortless sarcasm:

Natee has proudly worn the red pyjama shirt several times since then, and his dream personality hasn’t altered at all. On the contrary, the shirt has encouraged him to become a man of conviction in his waking life. As to what those convictions were supposed to be, Natee wasn’t quite sure. But it was safe to say that a night shirt so principled wouldn’t drop a button so easily.

Since these stories were written, Bangkok’s political schizophrenia has lost its former air of apathy and innocence, but Yoon’s tone is quietly prescient about the eruption of violent irrationality a few years later. It’s a reminder how precious the subtlety of fiction is when set against the shrill certitudes of activism and reportage.

My favorite story here is “Something in the Air”. Its dialogues are written with hilariously archaic, bureaucratic formality, while delving into the disorientation of sexual and romantic hopes in the present century. After the couple’s love-making is interrupted, the young man suggests insolently to the woman that they resume in the open air, exposed to the furious elements. She agrees. They then notice that a dead body is lying on the roof nearby, crushed by the giant letters.

While waiting for the police to arrive, the woman sits quietly and describes her future, a happily married future in which her current lover will play no part whatsoever. He listens in melancholy astonishment until the couple are called to give their testimonies about the dead man. The officers then suspect that the couple themselves have done something scandalous – and so, stung by shame, the woman considers breaking off the relationship and setting in motion her own prophesy.

The Sad Part Was is unique in the contemporary literature of Bangkok – it doesn’t feature bar girls, white men, gangsters or scenes redolent of The Hangover Part II. Instead it reveals, sotto voce, the Thai voices that are swept up in their own city’s wild confusion and energy, and it does so obliquely, by a technique of partial revelation always susceptible to tenderness.

Lawrence Osborne is a British novelist living in Bangkok. His next book, “Beautiful Animals”, will be published by Hogarth in August

The Sad Part Was
Prabda Yoon
Tilted Axis Press, 192pp, £8.99

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder