In his latest novel about an airplane bombing over Scotland more than 20 years ago, James Robertson examines the limits of grief and memory when history intrudes on life uninvited. Malcolm Forbes is thoroughly impressed
True story of a 1988 airliner crash still to be told, author says
"Scotland's a wee place," says one of James Robertson's characters in his 2010 magnum opus, And the Land Lay Still. Be that as it may, for each of his four novels Robertson has mined his native land and extracted enough rich and vital ore to do big things. As with Walter Scott, the subject of his doctoral study, Robertson is in many ways a historical writer. The Fanatic (2000) spliced modern-day Edinburgh with tales of 17th-century skulduggery including witchcraft and assassinations. Joseph Knight (2003) chronicled the search for a former slave in 19th-century Scotland. When Robertson doesn't plunge into the past, he allows it to encroach upon the present: from the wondrous, James Hogg-flavoured gothic fable, The Testament of Gideon Mack (2006), the personal account of a "mad minister who met with the devil and lived to tell the tale", to the epic panoramic vision of modern Scotland on show in And the Land Lay Still.
Now, after a three-year hiatus, comes a fifth novel, The Professor of Truth. As it is set in the present but taps into the past - at times feeds hungrily from it - it clearly belongs to that second group of novels. Alan Tealing is a jaded lecturer in English Literature at a Scottish university. In keeping with Robertson's earlier protagonists, Tealing feels "the burden of past events upon me" - for 21 years ago his wife and daughter were killed in the bombing of a plane over Scotland. Unconvinced by the court's verdict, passionately nurturing the belief that the wrong man was convicted and imprisoned, Tealing has spent the last two decades in search of the truth. His living room has been turned into an office for what he calls "The Case" - a mass of trial transcripts, interviews with politicians, police statements and even bomb-making manuals, all "spilling off the table and pooling on chairs and other low surfaces, forming slow, fat stalagmites on the floor". Tealing has become obsessive but his quest for justice has reached a dead-end.
Then one snowy day, a former American intelligence officer, supposedly dying from cancer and eager to clear his conscience, turns up on his doorstep with the address of a witness from the trial - a witness, Tealing believes, who was bought in order to obtain a quick-fix outcome. Tealing packs his bags for Australia and pursues his first major lead in years. Will his face-to-face showdown with a man who helped bring about a miscarriage of justice change anything? What matters more: a confession that may reopen the inquiry or an end to an agonising bereavement process? And how much truth can he expect to find? "That's a slippery substance, truth," the CIA officer tells him. For Tealing, it is "the only thing I've ever felt an allegiance to".
The Professor of Truth is a scintillating read - part political thriller, part meditation on grief, truth and the internal struggle to speak out, be heard and right wrongs. The first section, entitled Ice, comprises Tealing's long but riveting exchange with ex-spook Nilsen (a "spectral, fading man") across his kitchen table, intercut with flashbacks of Tealing's past - his happy family life, his university career and finally the bludgeoning blow of the plane crash. Nilsen's wintry presence and chilling revelations playing out amid bland domesticity is redolent of John le Carré and Graham Greene, but Robertson adds his own strain of disquiet and human empathy. Nilsen, though dying, comes vividly alive: "He had the look of a man who might recently have returned from a long expedition, in the Antarctic perhaps, on which many things had gone wrong." Part two, Fire, is apposite in a figurative sense, seeing as Tealing is undergoing his own baptism of fire, but also in a literal one, as the town he visits is ravaged by forest fires. Robertson thus ups the impending danger, immersing his protagonist in more jeopardy than both he and the reader envisaged.
The book is energised by tension, charged by Robertson's treatment of a man going it alone, out of his depth, prepared to risk all to obtain a final, critical reckoning. The drama unfolds through Tealing's intense and intimate first-person narration, which pulls the reader further in and places us firmly on Tealing's side. We sympathise with his plight and cheer his defiance. Like the faithless Gideon Mack, he is unable to find succour in God. He has been dismissed as an obstinate fool, a crank in thrall to conspiracy theories, rooting around for a smoking gun and an unpunished murderer, neither of which exists. His wife's parents sever the connection with him when he visits Khalil Khazar in prison, a man Tealing believes innocent of their daughter's murder. His sister urges him to move on. A lawyer mocks his idealism and thinks his perception of truth is naive: "It is not pure and separate. It is dirty and decayed and has frayed edges, and holes and tears in it. The last thing the truth does is gleam." Only his new partner, Carol, spurs him on.
Much is made of Tealing's grief. In a less skilled writer's hands we would be plodding through maudlin passages on the heels of a moping protagonist. But Robertson is too good for that, and eschews woe-is-me navel-gazing for heartfelt soul-searching and has his hero retrace his steps in pertinent, life-changing events rather than aimlessly wander down Memory Lane. Tealing's recollections of the crash and his day spent looking for wreckage are superbly managed, swinging powerfully, though unsettlingly, between unsparing recorded detail and creative reconstruction. Tealing stands in a field, looks up and imagines "two minutes of falling, that long, brief, breathless tumble, as of parachutists without chutes, the blacking-out, the faint, feeble grapple for consciousness, the agony of cold, the bursting lungs, the rush of the air and distortion of vision, the stars spinning and mixing with the lights of earth, that infinite aching two minutes in which your brain is too scrambled to say no, or call for help, or reach for the child who so recently, so long ago, was beside you, or say goodbye to the man who loved you". In light of this, his account of meeting his wife for the first time and his daughter's first day at school are poignant, bordering on unbearable.
Robertson excels as much with what he says as what he withholds. The Professor of Truth, like Robertson's previous novels, delves into Scotland's past, and this time round his source is the 1988 Lockerbie bombing. However, Lockerbie is never mentioned. The bomb begins its journey from an unnamed island in the Mediterranean. Khalil Khazar and another suspect come from an undisclosed "hostile regime", a "rogue state". Even Tealing's university town is anonymous, given only as a place in Scotland that "positively groans under the accumulation of history". A dead body that may or may not be Nilsen is found in the snow. Al Megrahi becomes Khazar; the rest - Lockerbie and Libya, Qaddafi and Pan Am Flight 103 - all go unsaid and perhaps rightly so. Robertson has gone on record as saying that the true story of Lockerbie "is still unfinished business, and for some it always will be". His novel reflects and articulates this reality and, although it exhibits clear parallels, it offers no neat conclusions. Ambiguity reigns. Smoke and mirrors prevail at every turn to conceal that hard-sought-for truth.
Not every literary author is capable of changing gear and successfully pulling off a thriller, not least one that is thought-provoking instead of action-packed. Most end up like John Updike's belly-flop, Terrorist: tendentious efforts that preach, generalise, rationalise and aim to resolve. Robertson does the opposite and beguiles us with broken lives and loose ends. Rather than answer, his novel asks: What, if any, are the limits to the grieving process? How, if at all, do we achieve closure? Is truth everything? And how much of what we do is chance and how much choice?
In Julian Barnes' 2005 novel, Arthur & George, Arthur Conan Doyle is described by his sister, Connie, as "Scottish practicality streaked with sudden fire". The same can be said of James Robertson's incendiary fiction.
He may well have peaked with And the Land Lay Still, but that doesn't mean he can't continue to produce searing, sinuous, first-rate novels like The Professor of Truth.
Malcolm Forbes is a freelance essayist and reviewer.