An Officer and a Spy, Robert Harris (2013)

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“What do you think your working on the Dreyfus Affair!”  My first boss in faculty union grievance work cleverly chastised me for taking such a long and detailed and anguished approach to what now, twenty-five years later, appears a very simple interpretive matter of fact and contract language.   Sid, union organizer and historian, was an Old Left Jew of a certain age— US Army junior officer stationed for the two years following D-Day in France as an interpreter with a medical and then displaced persons unit. He took a keen interest in my development as a union activist and a historian when, in those very early days of the 1990s, I was alone among the few dozen academic unionists in the room to belly laugh from his playfully distorted Thorstein Veblen reference to our frequent academic conferences  as “leisure for the theory class.”  Marx, Freud, and Marcuse, and their various probes into our worldly “determinations” were the stuff of his doctoral dissertation. Marx’s economy, Freud’s  subconscious, and Marcuse’s attention to totalizing aspects of post-war US culture made for many colorful and challenging conversations. He turned me on, along with the thousands of community college students he taught over many years, to Emile Zola’s Germinal, the unmatched, near elemental, nowR18848_RD_layout_NEW_stroke.indd epic, story of labor and capital in a French coal mining community.  We never talked of Zola’s public defense of Dreyfus J’accuse, or of Dreyfus at all. His reference to Dreyfus and many other dozens of content free popular and political and historico-chronological references to “Dreyfus” signify, in general, anti-semitism, Franco-Prussion antagonisms, republican legitimacy, and somehow Devil’s Island (and Papillion, incorrectly) remained abstract, and I uninformed. Until now.  Harris’s book is wonderful.  I’m certain that many other wide ranging readers like myself will be very pleased to take this account, historical fiction, indeed it is, and a novelist so clearly possessing the scruples of the craft, and the imagination to render the difficult tale so meaningfully.

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