Friday, 7 June 2013

Lockerbie is an existential nightmare

[My attention has just been drawn to a review by Mike Wade in The Times (behind the paywall) of James Robertson’s The Professor of Truth.  It reads in part:]

On December 21, 1988, a bomb aboard a flight from London to New York exploded 31,000ft above southern Scotland. All 259 passengers and crew were killed, and when the wreckage of Pan Am 103 hit the ground, 11 others perished in the village of Lockerbie. More died that evening than in any other terrorist attack in Britain.

For the bereaved, a long, dark journey had begun. They had to wait years for the lineaments of an inquiry to take shape and for suspects to be identified. When, in 2000, two Libyans came to trial at Camp Zeist in the Netherlands, one walked free. The other, Abdul Baset Ali al-Megrahi, was identified by Tony Gauci, a Maltese shopkeeper, found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment.

With al-Megrahi’s conviction, many of the bereaved found closure. Jim Swire, whose daughter Flora had been killed, did not. Already well known as a spokesman for the relatives of the dead, he believed the convicted man had been framed, and embarked on a mission to exonerate him, and reveal, he hoped, the truth behind Flora’s murder. This much is fact, but in James Robertson’s latest fiction,The Professor of Truth, only some of the details and none of the names are precise. Lockerbie is never identified. Megrahi is renamed Khalil Khazar; Gauci becomes Martin Parroulet, a taxi driver; and Swire, a Worcestershire GP, is transformed into Alan Tealing, the academic referred to in the title of the book.

In his disclaimer, Robertson insists that these characters are “products of the imagination”, though of course Swire would be most unlikely to sue even if they weren’t. The novel sets out to undermine the verdict of the real trial and is profoundly humane in its examination of Tealing’s remorseless obsession with “the case”. By the end, it is pity we feel for him, not admiration.

Robertson is a great storyteller. His earlier works won comparisons with Walter Scott and James Hogg; And The Land Lay Still, a sprawling Scottish nationalist epic, paradoxically evoked the work of J B Priestley. This time around there are shades of Graham Greene in the eerie sense of menace that surrounds his central character. It is a tense and gripping read.

Set in the present, the narrative takes place over little more than a week. It opens in winter, when, out of nowhere, Nilsen, a CIA agent, appears at Tealing’s home. The American is terminally ill, but before he dies he hopes to provide a piece of information to help the Englishman find peace. Tealing at first resents his visitor, but when circumstances force him to act on this new lead, he sets off in pursuit of Parroulet, the crucial witness.

Tealing’s back story is revealed in contemplation and reminiscence. He recalls the week spent around the village in the immediate aftermath of the catastrophe, imagining the fate of his wife and daughter, plummeting through the night. “They would have fallen with everything else, suitcases, handbags, blankets, the paraphernalia of air travel, a precipitation of human lives and possessions. That terrible downpour filled my head. Day and night, it never ceased.”

When at last he manages to break a police cordon around the disaster area, he rescues a plastic peg from the heather, the kind of rotating clip that secures a passenger’s table. It stays on his desk at home for the rest of his life, a memento of his family’s last moments.

These details are beautifully imagined. Others are all too real: Parroulet’s inconsistent evidence, the pressure brought to bear on him by the police and, finally, the reward he takes for helping to jail a terrorist, are all traced from Gauci’s life. In the real world of the bombing, it was confirmed in 2007 that a reward of $2 million (£1.3 million) had been promised to the shopkeeper for his testimony at Camp Zeist. The revelation was one of the six grounds cited by the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission for granting al-Megrahi leave to appeal.

The case was never heard. Within a year the Libyan had cancer diagnosed. His lawyers claim that he agreed to drop his appeal in return for his release on compassionate grounds; he later died in Tripoli. Meanwhile, Gauci, like Parroulet in the novel, has gone to ground with his money, in Australia. Swire maintains a website,, to keep the case in the public eye.

Robertson’s fiction shows that, in fact, Lockerbie is an existential nightmare for the people it left behind. The horror is summed up by the cynical CIA agent, who has the measure of Tealing’s restless 25-year quest, asking: “Were you even alive before the bomb went off?”
The Professor of Truth by James Robertson; Hamish Hamilton, 257pp, £16.99; e-book £10.

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