Category Archives: Robertson James

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