Archive for the ‘James Robertson’ Category

The Professor of Truth

November 11, 2013


James Robertson also features on the 50 best Scottish books of the last 50 years list. Surprisingly, it is his 2003 novel Joseph Knight rather than his playful evocation of James Hogg, the more celebrated Testament of Gideon Mack. If that is Robertson’s stand out novel, however, it is only because he engages so nakedly with Scottish literature rather than Scottish history. Robertson is always an ambitious writer, no more so than in his previous novel, As the Land Lay Still, an attempt to describe Scotland’s twentieth century in fiction. Robertson’ latest, The Professor of Truth, while depicted on a smaller canvas, is just as urgently concerned with Scotland’s past. Taking the Lockerbie bombing in 1988 as his starting point, he has created a fictional version of events from the conviction that the truth has yet to come out.

His central character is a university lecturer, Alan Tealing, who lost both his wife and daughter in the bombing. Twenty one years later, Tealing has not been able to let go, despite pleas from his own family and that of his dead wife. The novel begins with the death of Khalil Khazar –the fictional version of al Megrahi – but Tealing is certain Khazar was innocent:

“Everything is still as it was, we are no closer to finding out the truth about who really killed all those people twenty-one years ago, who killed my wife and daughter.”

Where the novel departs from reality is in the appearance of a shady American character, Nilsen, who arrives at Tealing’s door. Nilsen worked at the crash site creating the “narrative” of what happened. In a novel that is about facing death, Nilsen is dying of cancer and has come to tell Tealing (some of) what he knows. In particular, he gives him information on the whereabouts of the witness, Parroulet, that placed Khazar at the airport where it is claimed the bomb was loaded (“ingested”) onto the plane. Tealing has always believed that this witness was pressured to identify Khazar thus preventing any further investigation.

If this makes it all sound a little le Carre, Robertson also uses Nilsen’s visit to tell us about Tealing’s life. This is where, as a novelist, he can give the story a dimension that another book about Lockerbie couldn’t. One small but telling moment is when Tealing sees a father and daughter playing a game looking at the pictures in a newspaper on the bus. Not only does it bring home to him his own lost relationship but the girl’s innocence in the face of world disasters. (Her comment on an article about floods is, “Why are they swimming?”)

This first section of the novel takes place in snow and ice, presumably reflecting the way in which Tealing’s life, and also to some extent his emotions, have become frozen. In the second section the action moves to Australia as Tealing goes in search of Parroulet. Obviously to say much about this would rather spoil the thrilleresque elements of the novel, but Robertson’s decision to set this during a season of fierce bushfires is a stroke of genius. Not only does it balance the symbolism, expressing both the potential of cleansing or destruction, but it emphasises the wider themes of facing up to both death and life.

In his comments on his choice of Joseph Knight, Stuart Kelly talks about how the past in Robertson’s novels is “urgent, pressing and angry.” That is certainly true of The Professor of Truth. The novel’s success, however, lies in it not only working as a political expose, but as a moving character study of loss.

The Testament of Gideon Mack

July 4, 2010

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.