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review: fiction

Kate Taylor

Many readers will recall at least some of the details of the famous Dreyfus Affair: In 1894, Alfred Dreyfus, a captain in the French army and a Jew, is arrested and convicted of spying for Germany. Despite the French military's persistent claims that they have the right man, eventually Dreyfus is found to be innocent, after spending several years in horrific conditions on Devil's Island, France's penal colony.

The Dreyfus story stands as an enduring symbol of French anti-Semitism and the willingness of military institutions to bend and sometimes break the law to defend their own power at the cost of individual liberties. (As recently as 1985, the French minister of defence refused to allow a statue of Dreyfus in the Ècole Militaire.) It also reflects the extraordinary lengths to which some in society will go to defend those liberties.

A Man in Uniform is Kate Taylor's second novel. It takes place in the final years of the 19th century, but this is not the Belle Époque of Jarry and Picasso, Mallarmé and Apollinaire, with their manic artistic innovations and their frantic obsession with the birthing of modernism. The France pictured here is the traditional conservative and prosperous world of formal balls, salons, lawyers' offices, broad boulevards and society gossip. In Parisian terms, this is not a Left Bank but a Right Bank novel.

François Dubon, a lawyer, married 18 years, receives a visit from a mysterious woman, Madame Duhamel, who hires him to investigate the details of the Dreyfus conviction. Although Dreyfus has already been incarcerated for two years, Duhamel remains unhappy with the way the wealthy Dreyfus family has continued to pursue the case. Dubon demurs, then changes his mind, having made the mistake of gazing into her intense blue eyes. He decides he will follow up only until he can pass it along to a more appropriate lawyer.

Although he dabbled in radical politics in his youth, Dubon has become the kind of bourgeois husband who must be at the apartment of his mistress by 5 p.m. so that he will then not be late for dinner with his wife. In the conservative Paris of the day, arriving a half-hour late for dinner was a far worse crime than supporting a kept woman. One of the strengths of this historical novel is the characterization of Dubon. His reticence to become involved with Dreyfus, and the way he is nevertheless irretrievably drawn into the affair by his own desires and dormant ideals, is handled with supreme skill.

One reason he eventually engages in the case is his attraction to Madame Duhamel (at a time when his interest in wife and mistress is fading). To find certain secret documents crucial to his investigation, Dubon decides he must impersonate a military clerk in order to penetrate a shadowy counter-espionage office called the Statistical Section. When Duhamel brings him a uniform, Dubon says:

"It doesn't fit me that well."

"Perhaps I could help."

She reached over and pulled the canvas cover off the uniform, took a look at the blue tunic and ran a hand down it as if assessing its quality. Gently, as though the thing were very precious, she began to undo the top button.

A Man in Uniform could do with more of this sort of subtle suggestiveness. Although the story unfolds rather slowly, when Dubon begins working in the counter-espionage section, the novel takes off. The lawyer's panic at the possibility of being discovered is palpable; the reader can feel Dubon quaking in his puttees. From here, the novel begins to race with the urgency of a literate thriller.

Throughout, Taylor uses period details to good effect: at the racetrack, in a photography darkroom, in the offices of a local newspaper, at a ball attended by military officials and diplomats. Near the end, after it is clear Dreyfus will be exonerated, Madame Duhamel asks Dubon:

"You think the generals have been blinded by their loyalty to the nation …"

"No, Madame, what they have been is mistaken in their notion of what the nation represents. In their paranoia about Germany, they have forgotten that the rights of a man are as important as the future of Alsace and Lorraine."

"The end does not justify the means?"

"Use the wrong means and you'll have no end left worth fighting for."

Today, the Dreyfus Affair continues to serve as a bracing reminder, in these times when Guantanamo plays the role of Devil's Island and we are all prisoners of our own fear, that we dare not have blind faith in the willingness of our leaders to defend our most cherished rights and freedoms. Taylor's engaging novel, in creating a detailed historical world, reminds us of that ever-present danger.

Mark Frutkin's most recent novel is Fabrizio's Return, winner of the Trillium and the Sunburst Awards.