[The same issue of Perspectives magazine as carries Dr Jim Swire’s essay contains an article by James Robertson on the links (and differences) between the Lockerbie disaster and his novel The Professor of Truth. The article reads as follows:]
One of the functions of a novel is to ask what it is to be human, exploring this question more subtly than is sometimes possible through, for example, the hard facts or loaded opinions of journalism. This is what I have attempted in The Professor of Truth, a work of fiction populated by imagined, invented characters.
It would be absurd, however, to pretend that the book is not also influenced and inspired by a real event, namely the Lockerbie bombing of 21 December 1988 and the long trail of events that followed that horrific night. Even as the trial of Abdelbaset al-Megrahi and his co-accused Lamin Khalifa Fhimah was in progress, and at a growing volume after the acquittal of Fhimah and conviction of Megrahi in January 2001, concerns were being raised that Megrahi, who always maintained his innocence, might be the victim of a gross injustice: in short, that he was a scapegoat and had been wrongly convicted in the biggest criminal case in Scottish legal history. People with far greater expertise and knowledge than I had found the prosecution’s evidence and the reasoning of the published judgment far from persuasive. Since then, more and more information has come into the public domain which leaves the case against Megrahi in shreds: some evidence was withheld from the defence or suppressed by the prosecution or by the police; new evidence has emerged which further undermines the Crown’s case; and key witnesses, without whose testimony he could not have been found guilty, have been largely discredited.
I had become increasingly fascinated, disturbed and angered by this long drawn-out saga, not least because, if Megrahi was innocent, then the real murderers of 270 people remained unidentified and unpunished. Furthermore, if the trial had indeed reached the wrong conclusion, then a massive stain was disfiguring the Scottish justice system. This has important political implications. A fair, open and properly functioning justice system is a prerequisite for a fair, open and properly functioning modern democracy. Whatever the outcome of the coming referendum on independence, this proposition is still valid: the prospect of opening a new chapter in our history – whether as an independent country or as a continuing part of the UK – with questions over the Lockerbie case unresolved is not a good one.
These were some of the motivations behind writing The Professor of Truth. Why, though, use fiction to explore this complex territory? First, because it is my craft. Second, an enormous amount of non-fiction material already exists on Lockerbie – in the form of books, journalism, legal and other expert opinion, documentary film and official records both on paper and on-line – to which I could add little of any value. Third, when real events resist full explanation it is sometimes possible for fiction to cast a fresh and useful light on those events. Fiction, as Julian Barnes has written, is a way of telling the truth through telling lies. However, you won’t find the names Lockerbie, Libya, Malta or Megrahi anywhere in The Professor of Truth. Obviously I have researched the real history very deeply, but the fiction I’ve created is not an attempt to explain what really happened in 1988 and thereafter. If I knew that I wouldn’t have written a novel.
What I have tried to do is explore some of the issues at the heart of the case: what is truth, what is justice, and how can we recognise them? How are narratives constructed and shaped to serve the interests of those in power, and how do other narratives emerge to challenge them? One of the characteristics of fiction is that it can ask questions without necessarily supplying all the answers. And a novel is a two-way process: it is the reader as well as the writer who must grapple with such questions.
I also wanted to imagine what happens to a man who has to contend not only with terrible loss through an act of terrorism but also with a growing belief that the truth of what happened has been denied to him. This is the situation of my main character, the story’s narrator, a lecturer in English literature called Alan Tealing. Alan has been on an emotional, psychological and philosophical journey – one littered with obstacles – for 21 years when the book opens. He is visited, in the depths of winter, by a retired American intelligence officer, who brings him a piece of information about a witness in the trial. This information will send Alan on a physical journey from a landscape of ice to one of fire: from snowbound Scotland to Australia in the middle of a heatwave. He goes hoping to find those elusive things, truth and justice, but – as a lawyer colleague warns him – they may not look the way he expects them to if he does.
I was conscious as I wrote the book that I was treading on sensitive ground, because to many of the families of the victims of the Lockerbie bombing the idea that Megrahi might not have been guilty is deeply upsetting. I also saw that the assumption would inevitably be made that Alan Tealing is a thinly disguised version of Dr Jim Swire. This is not the case, even though Tealing undergoes some of the experiences that Dr Swire has undergone in his long quest for truth. I deliberately made no contact with Jim Swire during the writing of the book. I wanted free rein to look at the issues discussed above, and was writing a novel, not a thinly disguised biography. After I had completed the book, I contacted him to ask if he would like to read it before publication – not to seek his approval or endorsement, but as a courtesy. He responded to the novel with the intelligence, integrity and humanity that anyone who has seen him making his case over the years will have recognised.
Quite independently, and for totally different reasons, we have come to the same conclusion: that the Lockerbie trial resulted in a miscarriage of justice which only compounds the injustice done to Jim’s daughter Flora and the other 269 victims, and also to the people of Libya, who for many years suffered appallingly as a result of the UN sanctions imposed upon their country at the behest of the American and British governments.