Friday, 10 February 2012

Review - The Man on Devil's Island


- The kind people at Writersdock have struck again, and this time they've done an interview with me. I'm immensely flattered, although I still think they may have gotten a little confused and actually meant me to interview them. Regardless, it's up on their site and you can read it here.

- I've done a review of the new NT production of She Stoops to Conquer over at Litro, and also blogged about why you ought to be able to bring up Terry Pratchett in a university seminar.


I've been on a historical non-fiction kick recently, possibly because I want to read books that my English-lit-crit brain won't automatically start analysing for theme and word choice and Deeper Meaning, but also because I do love history. I once almost read History at university, before I realised that I was being influenced by my father coming into my room several times a day and saying YOU SHOULD READ HISTORY AT UNIVERSITY, whereas what I really enjoyed about history was that it was like literature, except with real people.

I've always loved stories, and the real stories that history spits out not only tend to be madder than most fiction but also give you opportunity to get fascinatingly intricate with the detail of what happened on the night of August the 7th. Obviously, my favourite sort of history is crime, but really, there's not much that doesn't interest me.

Certain bits of history, though, seem to come up again and again in my reading. One of those is the Dreyfus Affair. It just keeps on being mentioned in passing, as something very important, but not important enough to explain - there's a tiresome assumption with these sorts of things that the reader knows all about them already. So when I saw Ruth Harris's book, The Man on Devil's Island, I decided to lay my ignorance to rest and find out who Dreyfus was and what the hell happened to him.

Now, before we go any further, I'm going to explain as briefly as I can what did actually happen, not only because it's very interesting, but because even the Wikipedia article is horribly obtuse.

In 1894, the French government was about as paranoid as the American government is today. They'd begun their terrible run of losing every war they fought (one of the worst results of this was having to cede Alsace-Lorraine to the Germans in 1871), and they saw enemies lurking about everywhere, ready to take more of their land. So when they discovered a letter in the German embassy proving that someone was spying for Germany, they went slightly insane. They needed a culprit, and after an extremely short and completely rubbish investigation they more or less settled on a random man, artillery officer Alfred Dreyfus, because he was a bit stuck up and odd, and also (probably) because he was Jewish.

Dreyfus was swiftly convicted in military court on completely trumped-up and falsified evidence and packed off to a prison island, but while he was languishing people back home in France started noticing that he had been falsely charged, and a movement began to get him exonerated. About half of France (including Zola) were violently for Dreyfus, and the other half (including most of the military, who had been the big movers behind the original conviction) were violently against him. The whole thing brought up a lot of buried issues, like anti-semitism and national identity, and by the time the Dreyfusards managed to get a re-trial in 1899 it wasn't really about Alfred Dreyfus at all, but what he mystically represented.

Alfred was finally pardoned - although never actually exonerated, even though the actual culprit (a man called Esterhazy) was fairly open about having done it - in 1900. It was a fairly sad and inconclusive end, and no one (apart from Alfred) came out of it looking impressive at all.

And that's the very, very potted history of the Dreyfus Affair.

Annoyingly, in The Man on Devil's Island, Harris does seem to some extent to be afflicted by the assumption that her readers already know the story she's telling. Granted, what she's trying to do is less about explaining the linear story of events and more about tracing influences and movements among the people involved in the Affair, but I did still find myself wishing that she wouldn't jump about so much in the timeline. She'll start paragraphs by saying things like 'Although this was not relevant until the second trial...' when we hadn't TALKED about the second trial yet, and I had no idea there even WAS one - but despite this failing, she writes well, if in slightly dense prose, and she conveys the characters of the human beings involved in the drama with great (scholarly) panache.

And my goodness, were there a lot of human beings involved in the Affair. It seemed to me at times, bedazzled by the hail of names I was being subjected to, as though every person in France made some sort of contribution to proceedings. Not only did all the politicians, academics, writers, journalists, officers and lawyers get involved, but completely random people kept popping up to convey their thoughts and feelings on the matter. Over the course of the Affair, for example, Mrs Dreyfus got thousands and thousands of letters from total strangers who either hated her or were under the impression that they were already best friends because they'd read about her in the papers.

The Dreyfus Affair really did seem to have an extraordinary capacity for turning ordinary people into nutters, something that Harris conveys very well. When you hear about two factions arguing, you imagine something quite rarefied and mainly carried out in the correspondence pages of newspapers, but no - grown-up human beings from both sides got so angry about the Affair that they would actually go out into the streets and punch each other in the face. Literally. People got shot, they lost their jobs, they stopped talking to their families - if you want an English comparison, the nearest thing I can think of is the Civil War. It was that bad.

Not that many of the people in question weren't somewhat insane to begin with. The anti-Dreyfus crew boasted a man who wore mandrake root on a chain around his neck to ward off Jewish black magic, and the Dreyfusards had the scientist who first put forward (seriously, I might add) the existance of ectoplasm.

One of the best things about The Man on Devil's Island is how even-handed it manages to be. It's very easy - as Harris says - to think that Dreyfusard=liberal=GOOD, and anti-Dreyfusard=fascist=EVIL, but like all binaries it doesn't really bear looking into. Both sides had their share of anti-Semites, corrupt idiots and philanderers, and both sides did some pretty gross and shady things in the pursuit of what they thought was right.

Many people who joined the anti-Dreyfusard side just thought that it was the only way to protect their country and their society and to hold on to a unified French identity. They weren't really interested in the innocence or otherwise of a single insignificant man - and nor, before you think the other side was any better, were many of the Dreyfusards. They wanted a separation of Church and state and a reduction of the military's powers, and the Dreyfus Affair just turned into something  they hoped would help form a legal precident. When it began to look as though Dreyfus would lose his second trial, for example, his closest supporters seriously considered letting him die in custody, just to prove their point.

So everyone was an ass! That's the basic message of The Man on Devil's Island, anyway. Alfred Dreyfus got hung out to dry by his 'friends' as well as his enemies, and nothing much was accomplished apart from the airing of a lot of issues that keep coming back to bite the French, even to this day. Harris, interestingly, cites the recent ban on the wearing of headscarves as an example of a continuation of fears about the assimilation of different religions into French society that really began with Dreyfus.

It took me a long time to get through The Man on Devil's Island - as I said, it was dense (though I think, with the topic in question, it has to be) - but I'm glad I did. I'm still not convinced I entirely Get the Dreyfus Affair, but I understand a lot more about it, and about French society in general, than I did before, and that's always a good thing. Harris has a lot of interesting and well-argued thoughts about a very interesting case, and though I'm not sure if this is a good grounding in Dreyfus, it's certainly a good book.

3.5 stars.

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