Saturday, 29 June 2013

Lockerbie is still unfinished business

[A long and perceptive review by Malcolm Forbes of James Robertson’s latest novel has just been published on the website of the Abu Dhabi newspaper The National.  The following are excerpts:]

"Scotland's a wee place," says one of James Robertson's characters in his 2010 magnum opus, And the Land Lay Still. Be that as it may, for each of his four novels Robertson has mined his native land and extracted enough rich and vital ore to do big things. As with Walter Scott, the subject of his doctoral study, Robertson is in many ways a historical writer. The Fanatic (2000) spliced modern-day Edinburgh with tales of 17th-century skulduggery including witchcraft and assassinations. Joseph Knight (2003) chronicled the search for a former slave in 19th-century Scotland. When Robertson doesn't plunge into the past, he allows it to encroach upon the present: from the wondrous, James Hogg-flavoured gothic fable, The Testament of Gideon Mack (2006), the personal account of a "mad minister who met with the devil and lived to tell the tale", to the epic panoramic vision of modern Scotland on show in And the Land Lay Still.

Now, after a three-year hiatus, comes a fifth novel, The Professor of Truth. As it is set in the present but taps into the past - at times feeds hungrily from it - it clearly belongs to that second group of novels. (...)

The Professor of Truth is a scintillating read - part political thriller, part meditation on grief, truth and the internal struggle to speak out, be heard and right wrongs. (...)

The book is energised by tension, charged by Robertson's treatment of a man going it alone, out of his depth, prepared to risk all to obtain a final, critical reckoning. The drama unfolds through Tealing's intense and intimate first-person narration, which pulls the reader further in and places us firmly on Tealing's side. We sympathise with his plight and cheer his defiance. Like the faithless Gideon Mack, he is unable to find succour in God. He has been dismissed as an obstinate fool, a crank in thrall to conspiracy theories, rooting around for a smoking gun and an unpunished murderer, neither of which exists. His wife's parents sever the connection with him when he visits Khalil Khazar in prison, a man Tealing believes innocent of their daughter's murder. His sister urges him to move on. A lawyer mocks his idealism and thinks his perception of truth is naive: "It is not pure and separate. It is dirty and decayed and has frayed edges, and holes and tears in it. The last thing the truth does is gleam." Only his new partner, Carol, spurs him on.

Much is made of Tealing's grief. In a less skilled writer's hands we would be plodding through maudlin passages on the heels of a moping protagonist. But Robertson is too good for that, and eschews woe-is-me navel-gazing for heartfelt soul-searching and has his hero retrace his steps in pertinent, life-changing events rather than aimlessly wander down Memory Lane. Tealing's recollections of the crash and his day spent looking for wreckage are superbly managed, swinging powerfully, though unsettlingly, between unsparing recorded detail and creative reconstruction. (...)

Robertson excels as much with what he says as what he withholds. The Professor of Truth, like Robertson's previous novels, delves into Scotland's past, and this time round his source is the 1988 Lockerbie bombing. However, Lockerbie is never mentioned. The bomb begins its journey from an unnamed island in the Mediterranean. Khalil Khazar and another suspect come from an undisclosed "hostile regime", a "rogue state". Even Tealing's university town is anonymous, given only as a place in Scotland that "positively groans under the accumulation of history". A dead body that may or may not be Nilsen is found in the snow. Al Megrahi becomes Khazar; the rest - Lockerbie and Libya, Qaddafi and Pan Am Flight 103 - all go unsaid and perhaps rightly so. Robertson has gone on record as saying that the true story of Lockerbie "is still unfinished business, and for some it always will be". His novel reflects and articulates this reality and, although it exhibits clear parallels, it offers no neat conclusions. Ambiguity reigns. Smoke and mirrors prevail at every turn to conceal that hard-sought-for truth.

Not every literary author is capable of changing gear and successfully pulling off a thriller, not least one that is thought-provoking instead of action-packed. Most end up like John Updike's belly-flop, Terrorist: tendentious efforts that preach, generalise, rationalise and aim to resolve. Robertson does the opposite and beguiles us with broken lives and loose ends. Rather than answer, his novel asks: What, if any, are the limits to the grieving process? How, if at all, do we achieve closure? Is truth everything? And how much of what we do is chance and how much choice?

In Julian Barnes' 2005 novel, Arthur & George, Arthur Conan Doyle is described by his sister, Connie, as "Scottish practicality streaked with sudden fire". The same can be said of James Robertson's incendiary fiction.

He may well have peaked with And the Land Lay Still, but that doesn't mean he can't continue to produce searing, sinuous, first-rate novels like The Professor of Truth

[Another serious and thought-provoking review is to be found here on the Scots Whay Hey! blog.]

1 comment:


    A simultaneous protract by the new Lockerbie 'AIR DISASTER INVESTIGATION' from the 'Scottish Police' - is also at the Swiss federal prosecutor, following a delay of a legal complaint against officials - to accuse !
    Eine simultane Verschleppung bei der neuen Lockerbie 'AIR DISASTER INVESTIGATION' durch die 'Scottish Police' - ist ebenfalls beim Schweizerischen Staatsanwalt des Bundes, infolge Rechtsverzögerung einer Strafanzeige gegen Offizielle, anzulasten !

    by Edwin Bollier, MEBO Ltd. Telecommunication Switzerland. Webpage: