[The Scotsman today features a long profile by David Robinson of James Robertson on the occasion of the publication of his novel The Professor of Truth. The following are excerpts:]
James Robertson has a problem. No matter how often he tells people that his latest novel, The Professor of Truth, isn’t a retelling of the Lockerbie disaster, he realises that people won’t believe him.
Look, he’ll point out, the name of the Scottish town where the blown-apart airliner crashed isn’t even mentioned. Nor are the names of any of the most prominent figures in both the atrocity itself and the subsequent trial. The country thought to be responsible for the plot isn’t named: there are no dates, no real names, only the sketchiest bit of geography. So it’s not Lockerbie.
On the other hand, it is about a bereaved man trying to find out who really was responsible for blowing up an airliner above the Scottish Borders a couple of decades ago. And how many other times has that ever happened apart from the tragedy that befell Pan Am Flight 103?
“It’s not a roman à clef,” Robertson insists. “It’s not thinly disguised history. But it is my attempt through fiction to investigate and explore some of the issues that come out of an event like that.”
“Inevitably, people are going to read it as being about Lockerbie. I don’t blame them for that and I don’t expect anything else.” (...)
I meet Robertson in his Edinburgh flat. Beyond the kitchen window, the clouds are grey and heavy, pushing slowly south over Arthur’s Seat. To me, and I suspect to millions of others, the Lockerbie affair was like those heavy clouds: it passed over us in endless headlines and stories while we remained unquestioning below. We read about the plots, the official one and the rival one. We became used to seeing the footage, the wreckage of Pan Am 103 incongruously gouged into a Dumfriesshire hillside. For years and years, the story rumbled on, and those of us lucky enough not to be directly affected felt a fading sadness for those who were. After decades, though, that sadness turned to boredom, that initial newsflash shock to apathy. Weren’t there 15,000 witness statements? Weren’t there experts to sift through them and put the truth together? Couldn’t we trust them, the way we trust meteorologists to tell us in what direction the clouds are going?
What I really wanted to know from Robertson is why his reaction was so different to mine, why he cared so much about the Lockerbie affair. At what moment did he begin to think justice wasn’t being done? What was it that seeded it in his mind as a subject for a novel?
I suspect I half know the answer to the first question. Allan Massie has noted that there is a “sort of Orwellian decency” about Robertson’s writing, and that’s true about the man too. It isn’t just Dr Alan Tealing – his fictional hero in the novel and the man who gives it its title – who is searching for truth and justice. So is Robertson. Because if Abdelbaset Ali Al-Megrahi was innocent, the people who really planted the Lockerbie bomb are still out there.
And if that’s the case, Robertson believes, the Scottish judicial system is seriously flawed. As this newspaper pointed out six months ago, in an article looking ahead to the books that would be published this year, the subject matter of Robertson’s new novel – “the most eagerly anticipated one of the year from a Scottish author” – could hardly be more ambitious or demanding. (...)
Robertson started writing The Professor of Truth in 2011, a year after finishing his novel And the Land Lay Still, a hugely ambitious (and at 688 pages also just huge) portrait of the changes in Scottish life since the Second World War. He had always followed the Lockerbie case and by this time had long doubted the official version of events. “I can’t tell you the precise moment,” he says, “but I remember reading reports of the Camp Zeist trial and thinking there was something not quite right even though I couldn’t pin down what it was”.
He had also started writing a story about someone who had lost family in a Lockerbie-like atrocity. “I wanted to put myself in that person’s shoes and think how it would have affected them – not just the terrible loss of losing your family in such a horrible way, but the fact that the ramifications from that event go on and on for a quarter of a century. I wondered how all of that would affect the individual’s life.”
As this had actually happened to Jim Swire. Did Robertson have him in mind while writing the novel? “I did my best not to. I was actually quite clear in my head that I shouldn’t compromise myself by worrying about that side of things. If I worried about whether anyone was going to be upset, I wouldn’t write the book I wanted to. I showed the book to him after I had finished it as a courtesy because inevitably people were going to make assumptions and draw parallels. His response was very encouraging, which was a great relief.”
Two years ago, Robertson began to realise that his growing belief that there had been a miscarriage of justice in the Lockerbie trial and his planned story about someone who had lost loved ones in a similar disaster weren’t separate issues. Instead, he could bring them together in a novel.
Already, he knew the case backwards. He’d trawled everything he could find about the lengthy legal proceedings. “People don’t do that unless they are absolutely obsessed by the case, but I have. I don’t expect other people to get into the case at that level. But a novel is a way in which people can have their interest triggered and maybe even though this is fiction, within it readers might find something that explains why so many people are convinced that there has been a miscarriage of justice.”
At this point, let’s get back to the novel. The main thing to say about The Professor of Truth is that it does indeed do what Robertson intended – to strip away that dismissive, bored “Oh, not bloody Lockerbie again!” reaction by using fiction to tell a similar story. (...)
A disillusioned lawyer counsels Tealing against ever expecting to hear the real truth from a court case. A woman he meets in Australia who has also suffered appalling loss urges Tealing to stoically accept the randomness of fate instead of obsessively searching for the truth.
These are voices you wouldn’t hear were Robertson a lesser novelist, stacking the deck in favour of making a propagandistic point on behalf of a cause he supports. But he doesn’t: he’s too good for that.
He questions everything – even his own craft as a novelist. Sometimes, he admits, he shares the doubts that Tealing, a lecturer in English literature, has about its importance. “Most writers who think about this seriously,” says Robertson, “do wonder whether their craft is superficial. But it’s good to doubt. Doubt is one of the great virtues. That’s what allows progress to happen and societies to be more civilised and settled and open-minded.”
And though he was talking about his craft, he could be talking about the reason he wrote The Professor of Truth too. Because this is a novel written out of doubt about the Scottish justice system. “There seems to me to be a big stain on it because of Lockerbie. If in some small way the publication of this book helps, if it gets sufficient attention, to push the door open a bit so we can get this thing sorted out, that’d be fine.”
• The Professor of Truth by James Robertson is published by Hamish Hamilton, price £16.99. He will be talking about the book at 7pm on Thursday (6 June) at Summerhall, Edinburgh. Tickets £5 from Waterstones, 128 Princes Street Edinburgh.