There is something peculiarly horrible about imprisoning a person on an island. It is not important whether it is St Helena, Robben Island, Alcatraz or Devil’s Island. Established to banish dissidents and criminals, these islands are known for their one-time prisoners, from Napoleon to Nelson Mandela. It is Devil’s Island, a French prison island in the Atlantic that is famous for housing not one but two French prisoners who were victims of a serious miscarriage of justice.
The first famous incarcerate was Alfred Dreyfus, the second was Henri “Papillon” Charrière. Papillon was made famous by a film starring Steve Mcqueen, Alfred Dreyfus, on the other hand, has been the subject of many a film and book and now another book has hit the stands.
Robert Harris has written extensively in both non-fiction and fiction about a great many subjects, Ancient Rome, the Nazis, politics, war and a host of other subjects and now he has turned his forensic eye to Captain Alfred Dreyfus, the Jewish military attaché accused and condemned for spying in 1895, and imprisoned on Devil’s Island, thousands of miles away in the Atlantic. The man chosen to report to the Minister of War, Major Georges Picquart is subsequently rewarded with a post in the secret service, head of The Statistical Section and created a Colonel…and there begins the unravelling of one of France’s most notorious of miscarriages of justice. For Picquart discovers how flimsy and weak the ‘evidence’ against Dreyfus is, and in spite of exceedingly strong persuasion from the Chiefs of Staff he persists, and is rewarded in his turn with exile to Africa, imprisonment and degradation.
The narrative is driven forward from the point of view of Colonel Picquart, the tense, clear prose drags the reader through the streets and prisons and smells of Paris in the 19th century.
There is no court in any country, including ours, where there has not been a miscarriage of justice; the case of Alfred Dreyfus is particularly hard, because those at the top of the chain of command, the Minister for War, General Auguste Mercier and the head of The Statistical Section, Colonel Jean Sandherr knew beyond a shadow of doubt that the evidence presented against Dreyfus was circumstantial, if not positively uncontroversially wrong. Furthermore to continue in the face of a request to reconsider the case the Chiefs of Staff went on producing blatant forgeries to weaken Picquart’s case for Dreyfus and to discredit and implicate Picquart in a Jewish conspiracy.
A superb book.