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The Professor of Truth by James Robertson

Hamish Hamilton, 2013, 259 p.

The Professor of Truth cover

James Robertson has published a series of novels dealing with Scottish themes, The Fanatic conjoins a present day tale with one set in Covenanting times, the testament of Gideon Mack has a modern day Kirk Minister meet the devil, Joseph Knight examines the (in danger of being forgotten) colonial and slave-owning legacy, while And the Land Lay Still deals with the rise of the Scottish independence movement in the late twentieth century. Scottish themes also abound in Robertson’s short fiction, of which I have read these and these.

The Professor of Truth marks a slight digression. While not dealing explicitly with Scottish subject matter – though its narrator is an Englishman living in Scotland – it takes an oblique look at an incident from recent Scottish history.

Alan Tealing is a lecturer in English literature in a university “of no great age located in a part of Scotland that positively groans under the accumulation of history.” Many years before the events of the novel his wife and daughter were killed when, while over the Scottish Borders, a bomb exploded in the aeroplane in which they were travelling to her parental home in the US. During the course of the trial of the men accused of the act, held in a foreign country, Tealing, despite wishing the reverse, becomes convinced of their innocence. His life since has been dominated by his search for the truth of what happened. This brings him into conflict with not only the authorities, but also the families of other bereaved, of his dead wife, and even his own mother, father and sister.

The inspiration for this scenario is not hard to discern but Robertson is at pains to avoid specifics. The place for the supposed “ingestion” of the bomb onto the aircraft is only ever referred to as “the island,” the town the destroyed plane descended on is never named, likewise the country the accused came from. (The incident also occurs around Thanksgiving rather than Christmas and the names of the accused are amended.)

The trigger for Robertson’s story is the appearance at Tealing’s house, one snowy day, of “Ted Nilsen,” a dying man attached to one of the US agencies which dealt with the aftermath of the bombing. Their discussions of the “narrative” of the atrocity, a narrative which evolved over time from a revenge attack by a terrorist cell in Germany funded by a Middle Eastern country which itself had had a plane downed (in an error of confusion) by US action even earlier, to a newer, less important to avoid annoying, Nearer Eastern country, are well laid out.

Tealing’s early life, his meeting with his wife, his learning of the tragedy, his trip to the Borders to try to find out if his wife and child are still alive, his subsequent disillusionment with the trial and lack of engagement with the world – barely ameliorated by a sporadic relationship with a colleague – are described in alternate chapters to his discussions with Nilsen. In his academic life, Tealing has a sense of being fraudulent, as, while he can discourse at length about them, he remembers almost nothing of all the books he has read. This fear of being found out in one’s inadequacies is a very Scottish trait, however. For Tealing, “Too many people write books. Far, far too many people write novels.” In his search for truth he consults a lawyer who tells him a courtroom is not a search for truth, it’s a venue for a fight between two sides. Justice may be done, truth may come out, but that isn’t the point.

All this is superb, but when “Nilsen” leaves the house, the book takes a less cerebral turn. Tealing travels to Australia, in bush fire season, to try to talk with the witness who was essential to the conviction (and who was subsequently well rewarded and given a new identity for his efforts.)

Aside. The details of the fluctuating “narrative” and the payment to the witness will be no shock to those who took a close interest in the real-life model for the bombing.

In Australia Tealing first encounters the witness’s Vietnamese wife – who has a tragic back-history of her own but agrees (perhaps a touch too willingly for suspension of disbelief) to facilitate the necessary meeting. The morphing of the story into one where a bush fire becomes an immediate threat was odd – though it gives Tealing the opportunity he had craved to engage with the witness. These bush fire scenes were reminiscent of something else I’ve read – almost Ballardian in tone.

Tealing and the witness (who now goes under the name of Parr) are never on the same level. Finding out Tealing’s occupation Parr says to him books are, “Like noise on paper,” and their discussion make Tealing remember one of “Nilsen”’s questions to him, “Were you even alive before the bomb went off?” which is an epiphany of sorts.

Pedant’s corner. In a book written by a Scot and published in the UK why is “medieval” spelt the US way?

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