Thursday, 8 May 2014

An officer and a Spy, by Robert Harris

France, January 1895:  convicted spy and traitor, army Captain Alfred Dreyfus is publicly humiliated before a crowd of thousands, there to watch him being stripped of his military insignia, sword broken and spirit crushed by the righteous condemnation of all French citizens.  Unfortunately the French army, who had hoped its popularity -  so diminished by their defeat and loss of Alsace/Lorraine in the Franco-Prussian war of 1870 -  would soar after the capture of this Jewish turncoat, is forced to witness an impassioned statement of innocence from the accused:  ‘Soldiers, they are degrading an innocent man …. Soldiers, they are dishonouring an innocent man …. Long live France …. Long live the army’.  Then he is marched along each of the four sides of the huge square, enduring the abuse and hatred of all,  before being taken to prison.  His public degradation is complete.
A reluctant witness to Dreyfus’s shame is Major Georges Picquart, there at the wish of the Minister of War, who, unable to attend the event by protocol, wants a full and frank account of proceedings.  Picquart makes such a good impression on the Minister that he is promoted to Colonel and given command of the Statistics Department, a euphemism for France’s intelligence operations.  He is delighted!  He is now the youngest colonel in the army and he applies himself to his new duties with all the zeal of the new broom – and therein lies his downfall:  he becomes too good at his job.
Georges starts innocently enough, reviewing the intelligence work of his ailing predecessor but his diligence gradually reveals alarming discrepancies in the evidence against Dreyfus, and the emergence of another army officer who appears to be in the pay of the German Embassy.
Georges is not an advocate, nor even an admirer of Dreyfus who has by now been sent to Hell in the shape of Devil’s Island in the North Atlantic, there to suffer as the only prisoner unimaginable torment from the elements, lack of contact with his beloved family and complete silence from his guards – but despite possessing the same anti-semitic bias as his contemporaries Georges has his own code of honour:  something is badly amiss in his department and the wrong man has been suffered an appalling fate.
However, all efforts to alert his superiors to the dreadful miscarriage of justice fall on stony ground.  At first he is gently admonished to let ‘sleeping dogs lie’, but when he exposes the real spy he is threatened with the end of his army career – the worst of fates for Georges;  the army is his life, his love and the air that he breathes – until the air becomes foul.
Robert Harris’s novelised account of France’s Great Shame is narrated by Georges Picquart, a complex figure who rose to great heights in the Army and plummeted to huge depths in his efforts to expose the terrible injustice perpetrated on the wrong man, relentlessly exposing the army General Staff in their attempts to cover up their shoddy errors, ineptitude and anti-semitism.  Mr Harris’s fine writing and exhaustive, impeccable research brings every character to thrilling life and illustrates perfectly the prevailing French view of the time: ‘Hmph – a  Jew traitor – and a rich one:  what can you expect?  They’re all the same, loyal to no-one but themselves.’
Highly recommended.

The Gospel of Loki, by Joanne Harris

For lovers of fantasy, here is the ultimate:  a retelling of the old Norse legends of the Gods led by Odin the One-eyed, master of disguise and ruler of Asgard, glittering and all-powerful sky-kingdom, impregnable against attack from its many enemies – until Odin after a secret journey to the underworld, returns with Loki.
Loki, father of lies;  Loki, the mischief-maker;  Loki, uncontrollable essence of Wildfire;  Loki, plotter par excellence – you get the picture?  The introduction of Loki into Asgard was not a good idea!
Joanne Harris is known for a body of work that is completely different:  the smash hit novel and film ‘Chocolat’, its sequel ‘The Lollipop Shoes’ followed by ‘Peaches for Monsieur le Curé’ (see 2012 review below) and various other novels that have a great readership.  Now she tries her hand at recounting a story already told myriad times – with a 21st century twist:  Loki is a good dude!  Just a little misunderstood is all, and any mischief that points to him (and there is SO much) is inclined to brushed off with ‘So shoot me.  I can’t help it.  It’s my nature.’  Which is absolutely right, but according to Ms Harris’s version – sorry, Loki’s;  he’s the narrator – Loki burns with resentment at the less than tepid welcome he receives from the established Gods of Asgard, who treat him like the upstart and outsider that he will always be, even after he demonstrates considerable intelligence and guile in getting them what they want.
They want what he can get them, but they don’t want him.
Loki has his own descriptions for the Gods he calls the Popular Crowd:
Thor, the Thunderer.  Likes hitting things.  Not a fan of Yours Truly.
Balder, god of peace.  Yeah, right. Known as Balder the Fair.  Handsome, sporty, popular.  Sound a little smug to you?  Yes, I thought so too.
Freyja, goddess of desire.  Vain, petty and manipulative.  Will sleep with practically anyone as long as jewellery is involved.
Frey, the Reaper.  Twin brother of the above.  Not a bad guy, but a fool for blondes.
Mani, the Moon.  Drives a cool car.
Sol, the Sun.  Drives a hot car.
And so on.
Yes, Loki has their number and in time decides to bring those ingrates to heel, to teach them a lesson as only he can.  Odin swore to be a brother to him when he lured him away from the underworld, but hasn’t fulfilled this vow to Loki’s satisfaction:  the twilight of the gods is nigh, and Loki, Bringer of Light – and Destruction – will be the instrument of Ragnarok:  oh, it’s going to be a Conflagration felt in every corner of the Nine Worlds and absolutely EVERYONE will be sorry they were’nt nicer to Loki, so there!
Ms Harris has given us a rollicking, amoral anti-hero in her version of Loki the Destroyer;  he is shameless, hedonistic, ruthless (so shoot me, it’s my nature), but never less than enormously entertaining:  he’s, like, totally FUN!
Highly recommended.

Peaches for Monsieur le Curé

This is the third of Joanne Harris’s novels about Vianne Rocher, that beautifully eccentric, fey and footloose weaver of magic and maker of superb confections.  We first met her in ‘Chocolat’, Ms. Harris’s 1999 runaway best-seller, where she opens a chocolaterie in French village Lansquenet-sous-Tannes, only to gain the hatred of the local priest, who convinced himself that she was a witch – and he wasn’t entirely wrong. She also finds love with Roux, a gypsy who travels the waterways of France before they both move on to Paris and another chocolaterie in ‘The Lollipop Shoes’.  In that story Vianne and her little family are threatened with great harm but survive to continue charming peoples’ palates and dreams with her wonderful chocolates – until she receives a message from the dead to bring her back to Lansquenet: the curé, father Reynaud, the enemy who drove her on from that village is now in sore need of help – hers.  Not that he would ask.
It has been eight years since Vianne left Lansquenet and much has changed.  New people have arrived to settle in the village:  Muslims.  At first, all was well:  Lansquenet is not intolerant and while not rolling out a brass band welcome to strangers is not shunning the new arrivals either.  Everyone rubs along well enough – until Monsieur le Curé objects to the creation of a minaret in an old water tower:  it breaks local noise regulations, he says, but really he finds it a personal offence to hear that foreign chanting in competition to his church bells.  The priest and the local Muslim leader are on a collision course.
More sinister events occur – the curé finds that his position as village priest is being eroded from within when dissatisfied parishioners feel that they need a ‘21st century man of God’:  father Reynaud feels the winds of change and they are chilling.
Ms. Harris writes very well of bigotry and racism.  She does not shy away from examining the actions and reactions of one culture as it pits itself against another, and portrays only too clearly the evil that men can perpetrate in the name of religion.  Her countless fans will find this third ‘episode’ in Vianne Rocher’s travels as satisfying as the first two, but I have to say that a very pat and convenient fate for two of the major characters was a disappointment and less than worthy of a writer of Ms. Harris’s talents:  my first thought was that she had grown tired of her story and wanted to give it a quick and tidy ending.  So far I haven’t changed my mind.



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