The Professor of Truth by James Robertson

In an article from The Scotsman, James Robertson explains his interest in and his concerns regarding the Lockerbie case. His latest novel, The Professor of Truth, is certain to come in for its share of criticism given its very obvious connections to the explosion of Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie in 1988. In 2001, Abdelbaset al-Megrahi was found guilty and sentenced for the bombing. In 2009, diagnosed with prostate cancer, he was allowed to return to Libya, and he died in 2012. Case over? Well no… there are the families of those killed who still have to live with the memories and the loss, and then there are those who are not satisfied with the investigation into the tragedy. One of those not satisfied happens to be James Robertson, and while the words “Lockerbie,” and “Pan Am 103” do not appear anywhere in these pages, their glaring absence only serves to underscore the similarities between the novel and the case surrounding the destruction of Pan Am Flight 103.

Robertson will come in for his share of criticism for this novel probably on several levels–for creating a fictional story inspired by a true event and probably also for taking that fiction into a very definite direction. For Robertson’s defense, I’d say that he’s carved an area somewhere between reality and fiction, and that’s a fascinating zone for exploration–especially since the Lockerbie case itself is fraught with some very strange occurrences.

the professor of truthBut back to the book….

Professor Alan Tealing, a 55-year-old lecturer in English Literature, lost his wife and daughter in an airplane explosion that occurred over Scotland 21 years before. He’s never ‘recovered’ from his loss, and instead a large portion of his life, and an entire room in his house, have been given to what he calls The Case. Initially he tried to understand the logistics of what happened, but that turned into an investigation which then morphed into a dissatisfaction with the official “narrative” of events. A man, Khalil Khazar, was convicted of the bombing, but Tealing is convinced that Khazar is innocent and convicted on the flimsiest, highly questionable “evidence.” Although to most people, the case is ‘solved,’ Tealing is convinced that the ‘truth’ is still out there somewhere. During all the years of his research and his fight with various official institutions, Tealing has lost friends–including the parents of his dead wife. He’s a man obsessed, and he describes his life as an existence in a “succession of cells in a vast old prison that refused to release” him. Existing in a state of limbo, not free from the past, and unable to move forward, he exists in a space he calls “Château d’If.”

One day, Tealing receives a visitor–a dying American who “had the look of a man who might recently have returned from a long expedition, in the Antarctica perhaps, on which many things had gone wrong.” This man, who calls himself Nilsen, obviously has connections with some American Intelligence agency, is there, he says, “to settle” his debts.

“You’ve always interested me,” Nilsen said. “You were an awkward fit. You were assessed as not having any allegiance.”

“Allegiance?” I could equally well have challenged the word “interested” or the word “assessed,” but they surprised me less.

“Don’t get me wrong,” he went on. “Your first allegiance was to your loved ones, we all understood that. But beyond that. Beyond country, even. What was your philosophy, your world view? When you started to make a fuss”–he saw me bridle again and made a small concessionary gesture with the palm of one hand–“when you gave us trouble with your questions, it wasn’t clear what boundaries you recognize, or if you recognized any. It wasn’t clear where you would stop. You could have been a unifying force, someone who spoke for all the victims’ families. You bridged the Atlantic with your loss. but you were obstinate. You weren’t prepared to shut up. Not so long ago that enraged me. Who was this guy? Did he think he was smarter than we were? But now, you know what, I respect it. I admire you. In your shoes I would have been the same. I see that now.”

I did not want his respect or his admiration.

“The only thing I’ve ever felt an allegiance to,” I said, “is the truth.”

“That’s a slippery substance, truth,” Nilsen said.

It’s an uneasy meeting–one that Tealing barely endures as he’s suddenly face to face with a man who embodies the very sort of government opacity he’s struggled against for the last 2 decades. Yet Tealing finds it impossible to not listen as Nilsen says some curious things:

The log of the journey. You start an investigation and you’re starting a journey. Sometimes you set off and you draw the map as you go. You’re looking for some end point but you don’t know what or where it is. And other times you do know, and it’s just a matter of how you get there. The narrative is how you get to the right destination.

In an attempt to atone for past sins, Nilsen leaves Tealing with a single piece of information. This information may hold the key to the act that ripped apart Alan’s life, and so his obsession leads him to perhaps the final step in his journey towards the truth–a very important word to Tealing.

I had begun to think the unthinkable: that I might die before the truth was known about who had killed Emily and Alice. I hadn’t ever doubted that the truth would come out eventually, but if it came out when I was dead what use would it be to me? Or if it came out long after all of us–all the fathers and mothers and sisters and lovers of the dead–were gone? By then it wouldn’t really be the truth at all. It would be information, of historical interest only, provided to people untouched by the event. It would be like news of some atrocity in a foreign, distant land, unreal and therefore, in a way, untrue. They would want to feel it, those people, but they wouldn’t be able to, or the feeling would not be sustainable. Human sympathy can only travel so far.

Okay, it’s a bit clunky to jump-start the final leg of Tealing’s search with a Spook smitten with remorse or a desire to pay his moral debts, but the story had to be jump-started somewhere. But apart from that, Robertson shows incredible mastery when creating atmosphere–the tension in Tealing’s house between the two men, the chaos at the site of the plane crash–even as officials swoop in and begin collecting evidence of wreckage, Tealing’s vivid dreams of his dead daughter, and the last lap of Tealing’s journey which takes him to the sweltering heat of a seaside town in Australia, where he plays the role of an incongruous tourist plagued by food poisoning, a scuffle with locals and stuck with a low-rent hotel room.

The story goes back in time to the day of the plane crash, moving painfully through Tealing’s discovery that his wife and only child are dead, and then the story takes us back to the present, with occasional glimpses into the past. This is, in a way, a detective story with Tealing, a man of books, desperate to discover the truth about the established/official “narrative” surrounding the explosion. Author Robertson shows terrific empathy and understanding of a life gutted by grief and loss, and also how an average man is spurred on by the desire for the truth, whatever that may be, as a way of finally being able to have some sort of peace. For this reader, The Professor of Truth was a page-turner.  Tealing’s grief and sense of living in a state of limbo are palpable, and his sense of urgency, in spite of a 21-year delay, intensely conveyed. This is primarily an excellent novel which explores how ordinary lives become swept up in crimes committed by governments, but at no point does the author dally with preaching any particular political beliefs beyond asking the value of a human life and perhaps underneath it all, exactly who determines why some humans should be worth more than others.

Review copy


Filed under Fiction, Robertson James

15 responses to “The Professor of Truth by James Robertson

  1. Sine, as I understand it there are still some serious outstanding questions regarding the downing of Pan Am Flight 103, I am inclined to think that a work of fiction, even if it hones in upon what may be the truth, can only muddle things further.

    Nevertheless it sounds as if this book covers some fascinating territory.

    • He doesn’t focus on details of the case. Instead he zones in on the testimony of the witness who placed the fictional Khalil Khazar at the scene. I think this was a very wise move.

  2. You know what I think about writing fiction about that kind of event.
    I’m glad he managed to write a page turner, though.

    • Hi Emma, can you elaborate? I’d be interested to hear your opinion. Do you disagree with all kinds of fiction about this sort of tragedy or just particular types of fiction? How about fiction on 9/11, for instance? Personally I think it always depends on the intentions with which it’s written – is it part of a healing process of dealing with the event (in which case I think it’s important), or is it exploiting the event to make some money off a book (in which case it’s problematic)? The interesting question of course is where you draw the line between one and the other. That’s just my two cents, but if you don’t mind I’d like to hear yours?

  3. I think this sounds interesting because it’s about grief and finding meaning, not as much abut the actual event.
    Emma – I don’t understand your reservations. That would mean we would have to exclude historical events from literature? This, like 9/11, is not just a “fait divers” (whatever the word in English?).

  4. Caroline, Bettina,
    I explained how I feel about so called fiction that exploit recent news events here:

    Basically, I have nothing against Jay McInerney putting 9/11 in his novel The Good Life as it is about how the events impact the characters lives. It doesn’t try to unravel the why, or the how or use the convenient form of the novel to expose theories about the events. This is different from Claustria mentioned in my post Or this novel if I understood Guy’s introduction properly.

  5. I don’t necessarily have an issue with using recent events, and in this case it’s such an open case I can see why he might. In the UK there’s still a fairly widespread view that those finally charged with this were quite possibly (perhaps even probably) innocent. Since few people have much knowledge of the actual facts of the case I’m not sure what the view is based on, but it is common.

    Hence some of the misunderstanding between the US and UK when al-Megrahi was returned. In the US it seemed to be perceived as unwarranted clemency for a monster. In the UK it was widely seen as an act of mercy to a wrongfully convicted man. Tricky stuff, and that’s leaving aside the fact that the US could hardly be expected to understand the peculiarities of how Scottish law interacts with our constitutional settlement.

    Still not sure about this particular book though. It sounds well done, but I’m not sure I am ok with the troubled spook. In real life you generally just don’t get answers.

    I don’t agree with Bettina on one point (sorry Bettina). I don’t think the author’s intention matters at all. An author might think they’re writing something redemptive, healing, but their book may ultimately be exploitative fiction. I’d argue most Holocaust fiction falls into that camp. Who knows what the intentions behind The Boy with Striped Pyjamas are? Who cares? The book posits a scenario that could never have happened for the benefit ultimately of providing entertainment. I don’t think whether the author meant well or not really matters.

    Similarly, if an author is just looking to cash in, but their book is such that people find it helpful, well then the book is helpful.

    All that said, I don’t think it’s relevant to art whether it’s helpful or not. I do think though it’s relevant if it’s cheap, which is where I come back to most Holocaust fiction which simply uses horrific events to lend a pedestrian narrative a weight it hasn’t earned.

    • No worries about disagreeing – you have a point! I also realised that I forgot to mention something important. When I said “healing process” I was referring mostly to the author’s personal healing process. Although when I think about it, in some cases I’m not sure that really exists – perhaps what I meant rather than healing is dealing with personal experience. So in the holocaust context, for instance, I have absolutely no problem with Primo Levi at all (“The Periodic Table” is excellent, I think, and comes from a very personal place). Or in the Soviet context, with Solzhenitsyn’s “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich”. I haven’t read “The Boy with Striped Pyjamas”, but I see what you mean about not knowing about the author’s intentions.

      Where I’m really not sure is “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” by Jonathan Safran Foer. I thought it was a good book, and I didn’t think it was inappropriate at all. But evidently, it’s not like anything I described above. So I suppose the gist of it is, I’m not sure, but somehow do think that some books about disasters are more valid than others – I’m with you on the cheap front.

      • Ah, that makes more sense to me. Absolutely, a writer writing the truth of their experience is very different to someone writing something borrowing gravitas years later.

        Don’t know on the Froer. I guess it’ll be like most books, if it’s sufficiently well done the question of validity becomes moot, the quality of the treatment becomes justification enough.

  6. It’s a toughie: I suppose I would say that whether or not I want to read a fictional book based on a real event(s) depends on what it is. In this case, the appeal of the novel was just that. This was a book I wanted to read given just its framework. Yes there are many clear similarities between the book and Lockerbie, but this is essentially the story of how we handle grief and seek justice and truth (two wobbly terms as it turns out).

    Sometimes I don’t want to read a fictional book on a subject. For example, a fictional book about the Black Dahlia has no appeal, and if I wanted to read anything about it, I would read a non-fiction book. Sometimes when I read a fictional book based on a real person or incident, I am left with the feeling that I should now go off and read a bio or a non fiction read to get the full story. I don’t want to read a book about Lockerbie after finishing this novel–although I did do some background reading. A lot of strange stuff there…

    I thought about how the spook with a conscience jump starts the action here, and it’s a problem exactly how someone can dig into a cold case after 21 years without some sort of revelation out of the blue.

    Anyway, I enjoyed the novel simply because it IS a good novel.

    • leroyhunter

      The character of “the spook” reminds me of Donald Sutherland suddenly showing up in JFK. Wow! A nameless insider with all the answers! Fancy that.

  7. I wonder how much anyone ‘knows’ about events such as these–more likely ‘levels’ of knowing. As I said, the author had to jumpstart a cold case somehow and that was probably only going to happen with a new piece of info. The scene with the spook was well done, I have to say, even though I didn’t buy it. But then I didn’t buy the Stasi agent who turned human in The Lives of Others either.

    • Nice comparator. You’re right, that is unbelievable but the quality of the film gives it a pass. It’s like everything I guess, it’s all in the execution. If Robertson pulls it off then he pulls it off.

    • True about The Lives of Others! I’ve read the whole set up wasn’t very historically realistic or accurate (precisely because the Stasi was worried that their agents would turn “human”, they wouldn’t set up a mission this way). But I still loved the film. It’s a tricky subject, that one!

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