If it’s true that you should never judge a book by the cover, then this should also be true of its premise. But that’s in a perfect world. The reality is that when a novelist chooses to deal with a subject which has already caused controversy, national mourning and wide cultural debate there are those who will have made up their minds about it before a page is turned and many will make judgement without ever intending to read said book. There are subjects which some will claim are never suitable for artistic expression or examination, a point of view which I hope you will agree is clearly wrong. A piece of art can never be judged by its subject matter, only by its execution.
James Robertson’s latest novel, The Professor of Truth, is based on the events of the Lockerbie bombing, a tragedy which is recent enough to be all too vivid in most people’s memories. Scotland has only a few of what are widely known as ‘JFK events’, but Lockerbie was definitely one, a disaster which was so unexpected and shocking as to remain surreal. I made many trips up and down the M74 to visit a town called Annan in the early 90s, situated just over 10 miles from Lockerbie, and clearly remember cars slowing down on the motorway to look at the terrible scar left on the landscape.
But the scars left on the Scottish psyche lasted much longer, as this was global terror come to our land, and while many struggled to understand why and how, for some the only important thing was ‘who?’. The public desire to have someone to blame was strong, and was eventually satisfied, at least for those who chose to believe that Abdelbaset al-Megrahi was guilty of the bombing. I have no idea as to why James Robertson chose this subject for The Professor of Truth, but I would guess that it arose from being dissatisfied at the way that the tragedy had been covered and reported, particularly the desire to give the public their bogeyman to blame, demonise and despise. What Robertson’s novel does, and what I think great fiction can do, is to make the reader want to know more. To uncover for themselves their own truth by examining the information which is out there.
It should be made clear that The Professor of Truth is fiction, no matter how closely it may follow real events or its characters remind us of real people. The narrator is Alan Tealing, whose wife and daughter died on the flight, and he is searching for the truth, all the while knowing that ‘truth’ is something different depending on how it is viewed. He is a professor of literature, so is all too aware of point of view and unreliable narrators. The comparisons between trying to find ‘truth’ in literature and truth in life are all too clear, and as he learns more about ‘The Case’, as he calls it, so it seems he is ever further away from putting the past behind him.
What the novel is really about is grief, and how that process can only play out for each individual in their own way. When a whole nation grieves about a tragedy what does that leave for those who have actually lost loved ones? Are they allowed to follow their own paths or must their grieving fit the narrative which the media and wider society have written? And if you do follow a different path will that lead to others viewing you with pity which may become disdain, and eventually even anger? They have moved on, why can’t you? When it comes to tragedy, many people don’t want the plot to be confusing or complex.
The Professor of Truth is split into two parts. The first section, ‘Ice’, is set in wintry Scotland, and its tone is one of darkness with little warmth. Alan is a man who has given up hope, going through the motions of researching the Case long after believing it will give him what he needs, and in the face of no new evidence, or at least evidence which backs up his beliefs, he takes to musing on the nature of truth and justice. This is literature as philosophical and cultural theory, and it is James Robertson at his finest. He asks the reader to consider the narratives they are offered, even in this book, and to question them.
‘Fire’ sees the book shift gear to become a real thriller as Alan hunts down a man who can possibly give him answers to questions he has long given up on. It not only moves pace but continent, and Alan’s reignited passion and hope is palpable on the page, if increasingly desperate. But don’t be mistaken for thinking this is two books forced into one, the second part would have no emotional meaning for readers without the ruminations of the first. Alan learns more about himself in a few weeks than he has done in the preceding years of grieving, and it takes radical events for him to realise something vital. The Professor of Truth is always progressing to one final truth, one which everyone eventually has to sadly work out for themselves. Alan learns that to obsess on death, while perhaps natural, can stop those who remain from living. James Robertson has taken one man’s tragedy and his struggle to move on to remind us that death is not the end, and that’s the truth.