Wednesday, May 14, 2014

archaeological fragments of a mystery

A follow-up on last week's post about the Dreyfus Affair, for at the train station the other day I spied an intriguing poster for a new book by crime writer Robert Harris:

Harris has written a historical fictionalised account of events surrounding the Dreyfus Affair, from the perspective of Colonel Georges Picquart, whose tireless investigations led to the ultimate release of Alfred Dreyfus from imprisonment.

A petit taster. Paris, 1896. Colonel Georges Picquart has handed his trusty officer Lauth the infamous cone of torn-up documents without looking at them yet:
He dons his apron, and while he fetches his box of equipment from his cupboard, I empty the paper sack over his desk. Immediately my eye is caught by a sprinkling among the white and grey of several dozen pale blue fragments, like patches of sky on a cloudy day. I poke a couple with my forefinger. They are slightly thicker than normal paper. Lauth picks one up with his tweezers and examines it, turning it back and forth in the beam of his powerful electric lamp. 
"A petit bleu," he murmurs, using the slang expression for a pneumatic telegram card. He looks at me and frowns. "The pieces are torn up smaller than usual." 
"See what you can do." 
It must be four or five hours later that Lauth comes to my office. He is carrying a thin manila folder. He winces with distress as he offers it to me. his whole manner is anxious, uneasy. "I think you ought to look at this," he says. 
I open it. Inside lies the petit bleu. he has done a craftsman's job of sticking it back together. The texture reminds me of something that might have been reconstructed by an archaeologist: a fragment of broken glassware, perhaps, or a blue marble tile. it is jagged on the right-hand side, where some of the pieces are missing, and the lines of the tears give it a veined appearance. But the message in French is clear enough.
The message implies another officer's guilt and Dreyfus' innocence. The discovery is a pivotal moment in the plot, one that the characters return back to. Harris reconstructs the story from fragments and shards of documents himself, breathing life into that moment. The Evening Standard declares that Harris is committed to the belief that "you can get at a truth as a novelist in a way you can't as a historian - you can bring things alive, the sense of fear, prickly fear, the sweat, the smell of the place and so on".

For those who like the book, apparently the idea came from a lunch with Roman Polanski. So look out for the film soon!

Monday, May 5, 2014

Dreyfus bleus

For some years now my friend Patrice and I have been reading In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust. It is a book club of two, with many wonderful evenings spent together, sometimes talking of the book, walking in the botanical gardens, in wine bars or more recently chatting on Skype. At the moment we are reading The Guermantes Way, the third volume. It is here that the narrator becomes immersed in dinner parties and afternoon teas where much talk is of the Dreyfus Affair.

Alfred Dreyfus was a young Jewish artillery officer in the French Army who, in December 1984, was convicted of treason, accused of spying for the Germans. In the following days he was publicly degraded, his medals stripped, his sword broken, spat on by the crowd. After years exiled in prison in a tiny island in the Atlantic, it was to be a pneumatique telegramme, a petit bleu, which would begin a cascade of events leading to the release of this innocent man.

One day in 1986, a petit-bleu, torn-up and never sent, was found in the contents of a rubbish bin in the Germany military post in Paris. When pieced together (see above) the message was revealed, implicating another French officer in the offences attributed to Dreyfus. It took another 10 years before Dreyfus was restored to commission and his innocence publicly declared in the same place where he had been previously dishonoured.

It seems sadly ironic that a torn-up telegramme led to the release of Dreyfus, considering that it was torn-up documents that led to his conviction (where bizarrely the lack of correspondence between Dreyfus' writing and that of the document was proof of "self-forgery"). This was a very important moment in French history, a topic of much Paris salon repartee, and by the end of the 19th century a pre-occupation of many in the country, with camps divided. Indeed some argue that we are still in the midst of Dreyfus Affairs, where national panic takes false prisoners.

Information for this blogpost largely sourced from Trial of the Century: Revisiting the Dreyfus Affair by Adam Gopnik, in The New Yorker (September 28, 2009).

Image from Europeana