Tuesday, 30 July 2013

Fact or fiction?: James Robertson and Lockerbie

[This is the headline over a review in today’s edition of the Scottish Review by Andrew Hook, Bradley Professor of English Literature in the University of Glasgow from 1979 to 1998.  It reads in part:]

James Robertson's bold and extraordinary new novel – The Professor of Truth – has already sparked controversy. Hardly surprising given that its prime subject matter involves the most controversial episode in the modern history of Scottish justice: the conviction and imprisonment of the late Abdelbaset al-Megrahi as the terrorist responsible for the destruction of Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie in December, 1988.

Robertson sticks closely to the circumstances and characters involved in the Lockerbie tragedy and its aftermath, but what he has written remains a novel, a work of fiction. The book's central character is closely based on that of Jim Swire, the English doctor who lost his daughter on Flight 103, but who has subsequently become celebrated for his public and outspoken rejection of the validity of the trial and conviction of Megrahi. Dr Swire here becomes Alan Tealing, a lecturer – significantly not a professor – in the Stirling University department of English literature. He has lost his wife as well as his daughter in the disaster. Likewise Megrahi has become Khalil Khazar.

In the first section of the novel, entitled 'Ice', the setting remains a wintry Scotland, and Robertson creates a full and moving imaginative account of Tealing's response to the loss of his family and the existential freezing of his life and experience that follows. But in the book's second and final section – called 'Fire' – the scene shifts to a wholly imaginary experience of Australia where Tealing tracks down a Maltese character called Parroulet, clearly based on the real-life Maltese clothes shop owner, Tony Gauci, whose evidence was crucial in the trial and conviction of Megrahi.

Given this context, the novel inevitably raises a series of familiar quasi-philosophical questions: about the relationship between life as it is lived and how it is depicted in a work of art, about fiction and reality – not to mention others about how far the ideals of truth and justice actually operate in the practice of the law, and the validity of realistic or idealistic visions of human experience. So much so that one reviewer has referred to the Scottish section of the novel as a 'tutorial' on such issues. Perhaps there is a potential problem here for the novelist, but to my mind at least, the particulars of Alan Tealing's predicament, which we never lose sight of, prevent any descent into mere abstraction. Issues surrounding the meaning of truth and justice have come to define Tealing's life.

Another reviewer – Alexander Linklater in The Observer – raises a more central issue. He argues that the book is at its best when it is most fictional: it 'feels most real at the points where it is clearly fictional'. I agree. Again and again James Robertson’s creative imagination provides the tiny, telling detail which confirms the human reality of what is being described. Over the years, Tealing's relations with his wife's family in America slowly deteriorate. They cannot understand his rejection of the court's verdict. Their phone calls become infrequent; they have less and less to say to each other. 'When we spoke', Tealing tells us, 'I pictured the ocean rolling between us, vast and grey and cold'. (...)

For Linklater, the problem stems from Robertson's over-commitment to the truth and accuracy of Swire's rejection of the Scottish court's verdict. In his view the novel would have been more satisfying had Tealing been less sure that, say, Parroulet's withdrawing or qualifying his original evidence would lead to 'Khazar's' acquittal. In fact, Tealing is frequently shown struggling with doubt over the usefulness and value of his total commitment over so many years to the pursuit of the truth behind what he calls 'The Case'. Like the governess in Henry James's The Turn of the Screw, he is even ready to entertain – momentarily – the horror of his being entirely wrong.

What is actually in question here is a larger issue. Linklater's position (or preference) is very much a current, postmodern one. Contemporary art in all its forms prefers the uncertain, the problematic, the unresolved, the fragment. For the majority of today's artists there are no finalities, no absolutes, no firm or unchallengeable truths of any kind. But when in 1898 Emile Zola took on the French legal and political establishment with the publication of J'Accuse, a man – Alfred Dreyfus – was in prison for a crime he did not commit. A great wrong existed which could and should be righted. Eight years later, it was.

Writing The Professor of Truth, even if he chooses not to challenge the Scottish legal establishment head-on, James Robertson is clearly on Zola's side. Will the Lockerbie story be a different one eight years from now? 

[Because of popular demand, a second event involving James Robertson has been arranged at the 2013 Edinburgh International Book Festival. The programme states: "We are delighted to announce that James Robertson, one of Scotland’s foremost literary talents, will appear at a second event at the Book Festival.

"Tickets for his first event on 18 August sold out swiftly so anyone who was unable to secure tickets can now take the opportunity to see the novelist on Friday 23 August at 12 noon. Tickets are on sale now here on the website or you can ring our Box Office on 0845 373 5888."]

1 comment:

  1. The thing I don't understand about Robertson's book is that if one takes Tealing's assessment of the case at face value, it shouldn't matter if the passenger who left his pen in Parroulet's taxi was Khazar or not. This leaves me confused.

    In the real Lockerbie plot, the customer Gauci served in his shop was indeed someone involved in the terrorist plot. If it had been Megrahi, he deserved everything he got - irrespective of where the bomb was actually loaded on to the plane or by whom. So it is important to decide whether or not Gauci's (tentative) identification was reliable.

    In the Robertson book, if Tealing is correct about his bomb actually starting at Heathrow (as the Lockerbie bomb in fact did), then the Parroulet identification becomes a horse of an entirely different colour. Parroulet drove a passenger to the airport on "the island" on the morning of the disaster. The passenger was carrying a case matching the description of the bomb suitcase, and didn't seem to want Parroulet to carry it for him.

    For part of the book the reader seems to be led to believe that this was the real bomber taking the bomb to the airport on the island, and the central question of the plot was whether or not this man was Khazar. That's a powerful dramatic situation, when we realise Tealing is going to confront Parroulet.

    However, Robertson then reveals that the bomb didn't begin its journey on the island at all, but at London - or at least that Tealing believes that to be the case. This changes the entire focus of the plot in a way that isn't explored in any way. If that's the case, or even if that's what Tealing believes, then Parroulet's passenger didn't have anything to do with the bombing, whether he was Khazar or not.

    To me, this got in the way quite badly towards the end of the book. Suppose Parroulet really could identify Khazar as his passenger - so what? He still wouldn't be the bomber. The explicit assertion that the crime happened at Heathrow changes everything, and yet none of the implications seem to be acknowledged by the author.

    This also gives the lie to the claim that the book parallels Lockerbie closely. It's a pretty central difference, that in the Lockerbie case Gauci really did see one of the terrorists, while in the novel Parroulet saw someone who was just coincidentally and wrongly believed by the police to be involved in the atrocity.

    Maybe I'm too hung up on plot, in a boring narrative sort of way. Maybe someone better versed than I am in literary devices can explain it all to me.