The Testament of Gideon Mack

With And The Land Lay Still due in August, it seems an opportune moment to look again at James Robertson’s previous novel, The Testament of Gideon Mack, published in 2006. A 400 page autobiography of a Church of Scotland minister does not seem, at first, to guarantee a gripping read, but it is the marrying of a coming-of-age narrative with a tale of the supernatural that provides the novel’s power.

Gideon Mack, even more so than Robertson’s previous novels, is self-consciously in a Scottish tradition. Ministers feature frequently in Scottish novels, from Galt’s Annals of the Parish, to Chris Guthrie’s second husband, Robert Colquhoun, in A Scots Quair. The novel it owes most to, however, is James Hogg’s The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, something which is hinted at as early as the introduction when the journalist who has found the manuscript refers to it as:

“Your man’s memoir, autobiography, confession, whatever you want to call it…”

The structure is also similar, with the main narrative book-ended by editorial rationalisation. Of course, the found manuscript is a common literary ploy (in Scott, for example, whose novels Gideon reads as a child), but it is particularly effective in a supernatural tale where the editor can provide the scepticism that would otherwise come from the reader and prevent the suspension of disbelief. In Confessions of a Justified Sinner, the main character, Robert Wringhim, is tormented by a supernatural double, Gil-Martin. Gideon not only shares Gil-Martin’s initials, but his own satanic tormentor comments on the same initials in a book he claims to have given Gideon’s father:

“I have many names…But in this instance the letters stand for Gil Martin.”

Robertson’s devil is a creature of contrasts. Gideon finds him when he falls into the Black Jaws ravine while attempting to rescue a dog. He describes his “tenderness, the care with which he went about removing my sodden and torn clothes”, yet moments later, when Gideon suggests he has “dragged” his belongings into the cave he inhabits:

“For the first time his calmness deserted him. Her glared at me angrily. ‘I didn’t drag anything anywhere,’ he said. ‘Do I look like someone who drags things around? Do I?’”

The devil heals Gideon’s broken leg, fusing the bone with intense heat, but in doing so he leaves him with a limp. Most perversely, he encourages Gideon to tell the truth.

This is a pivotal moment for Gideon as, up to this point, his story has been one of living a lie. His upbringing also borrows heavily form the Scottish literary tradition of the tyrannical father, as exemplified by George Douglas Brown’s The House with the Green Shutters. Gideon’s father, James, is described as “serious, sombre and religious” and his character can been understood from his courtship of Gideon’s mother:

“In 1957, having known Agnes for ten years and never spoken alone with her for more than three minutes, my father proposed to her.”

James is not a caricature, however, and is humanised, for example, by his love of football, even allowing a television into the manse for the 1966 World Cup. Gideon naturally rebels against his father in various ways: quitting the Scouts, watching Batman on Sunday mornings, and not believing in God. His decision to become a minister is not the result of a calling, but something he falls into while remaining an atheist. His marriage is also built on a false premise. He meets his wife, Jenny, at university, along with her friend Elsie. It is Elsie he loves, but she chooses his best friend instead:

“Elsie and John started to dance, and as they danced they started to kiss, and I knew that there was no longer any hope of my being mistaken.”

The novel is therefore also about the compromises we make and then live with. Ironically, the devil becomes an advocate for truth, though a truth that causes Gideon’s life to implode. Gil-Martin is a clearly malevolent character who, again and again, tempts Wringhim into sin. Hogg’s aim was to satirise those who believed they were saved regardless of their actions. Gideon, on the other hand, undertakes good works without believing in salvation at all. Robertson is also satirising religion, in this case one which has become secularised to the point where a minister who believes in the devil is regarded as mad. But this is more than satire: Robertson is sketching the marginalisation of religion in Scotland in the last century with his great talent for outlining history in the detail of individual lives. Above all, he shows us Gideon’s battle for his own soul.

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