How does one bear truthful witness to a real tragedy in an age that is all too aware that truth is not divorced from the telling of stories? Or write a fictional narrative that must remain true to itself as fiction but which does not falsify the real? Instead of seeking the “truth” of the tragedy (James Robertson’s recent interventions indicate that he is not shy of doing this), The Professor of Truth looks at the complex motivations that lie behind such a quest for such truth (and its denial): truth for whom, why and to what effect?
Despite no mention of Lockerbie, Robertson’s novel is loosely based on the bombing of the fateful PanAm flight and on the issues stirred up first by the release, and then the death, of Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, the Libyan convicted of the crime. Doubts over al-Megrahi’s conviction have been aired by legal experts and, more poignantly, by Jim Swire who lost his own daughter in the tragedy, and who spent twenty five years tirelessly campaigning for an independent public inquiry.
Alan Tealing is the Swire-like figure in novel, an English Literature lecturer who loses both wife and daughter. Twenty one years after the disaster and he is still consumed by what he calls “The Case”, and the rupture wrought on his life: “For twenty-one years only one narrative, and a broken one at that, mattered to me. The fracture occurred when Emily and Alice were murdered. Everything in my life before that moment stopped, and everything after it began, right then.” Tealing’s obsessions, and especially his campaign against the guilty verdict for the Megrahi figure in the novel, alienates him from his wider family. One day, an American intelligence officer appears and suggests that justice may not have been done; Neilsen gives him the address of the sole eye-witness whose testimony was instrumental in securing the conviction but who was also paid a substantial reward for that exact information. Tealing then travels to Australia in pursuit of this witness; what he finds are other truths, tied to other individuals and stories that are equally as important as his own.
Given the ambitiousness of Robertson’s task and the real-life events that inspired it, the novel would, inevitably, pull in different – and sometimes contrary – directions: an exploration of grieving and ghosts; of conspiracies of the state in relation to information management; philosophical musings on the nature of truth and narration; how empathy jostles with solipsism in the story of interconnected human lives. The result is an uneven novel which cannot do full justice to all its disparate strands. The flashback vignettes of both daughter and wife are undertaken beautifully in relation to Tealing’s mourning, as are accounts of his numbness, his imagined “downpour” of human lives and possessions when the plane explodes, his resentment of children and his guilt at having dreams of his dead daughter but not of his dead wife. The first person voice heightens the loneliness of bereavement: “you cannot feel what another person feels. You cannot even imagine it”. Yet such moving accounts also sit uneasily with the whiff of paranoia and conspiracy in the thriller-like narrative that is put into motion by Neilson’s information; staying in first person here offers little narrative distance by which to judge the truth value of any account. When Tealing does locate the man in hiding the narrative takes a different tack, showing us in the account(s) of that man and his wife that other stories and lives are also the stuff of tragedy.
To my mind, Robertson’s earlier novel, Joseph Knight, is a more accomplished novelistic quest that re-imagines history in revealing ways. However, in dealing with a “live” controversy, The Professor of Truth does not have the luxury of distance or time. Yet in its awareness of the un-forensic, messy and embodied nature of truths, a rawness that is closely held by individuals, Robertson does make us think.