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.