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The Professor of Truth

Posted on Dec 20, 2013
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(Page 2)

Like Swire, Tealing’s obsession consumes his life. His belief that a miscarriage of justice has been committed amid a massive international cover-up is unwavering except for a single moment in the novel when he hears an “… insidious whisper [that] said that Khalil Khazar was indeed guilty of the crime.” Khazar is Robertson’s fictional counterpart of al-Megrahi. Tealing says the case, “condemned me again to my ancient prison, to scraping at the mouldy walls, but this time there was no hope of release and it was my own fault that I was incarcerated. What had I done wrong? I had created my own false religion, without which I could not function, could not wake and work every day, could not be. I had locked myself in a cell of delusion, of total blinkered faith in Khalil Khazar’s innocence.” It’s a moment worth pursuing and I wonder what the novel might have looked like had Robertson chosen to plumb this psychological dilemma rather than pursue a more political direction. 

In the acknowledgments, Robertson says a version of the first half of the novel was written during his time as writer in residence at Edinburgh Napier University. This seems to indicate that perhaps the second half was written after a break, which would explain the directional and tonal shift. From a literary point of view, the “Fire” section is not as strong. In Australia, Tealing tracks down Parroulet, whom he plans to pressure into recanting his testimony. Arranging a meeting with the reclusive Parroulet is problematic and finally arranged by his tough-minded and saintly wife, Kim, who has a tragic story of her own. A terrible brush fire predictably breaks out and differences are put aside for the sake of survival. It all feels a bit contrived at this point, hammering away at the message Robertson apparently intends to make. However, the last few pages of the book return to the elegiac, contemplative tone of the first section. Still, the crisis and resolution, no matter how lyrically written, do not live up to the promises made at the beginning of the book.

Writers, as Maupassant said, do not create from nothing; we are not God. Writers ingest the world around them and allow it to compost down in the gut before opening a vein and making fiction out of it. But to use fiction as a bullhorn risks compromising the quality of the fiction. The great writer Harry Crews wrote about the problem of fiction composed in order to convince readers of a particular idea:

I don’t have the answers to the questions raised in my books. I’m not supposed to have them. If I had them I’d be writing tracts. I’d be writing things like Jehovah Witnesses hand out. They have the answers. I have no answers. And writers who have answers are usually very, very, very bad writers. No matter how well they use the language they are bad artists. An artist is outside that. In many ways the artist is apolitical and amoral, not immoral, amoral, outside it. Otherwise you’re writing tract fiction, tract literature, literature that has a point to make. Any fiction that has a point to make is bad; it’s going to be bad, because nobody knows what the fucking point is. ...

Well, I’m not sure I’d be quite so strident as that, but Crews has a point. 

“The Professor of Truth,” when it is not trying to holler at me about The Truth, is a brilliant portrayal of grief, loss, of how little justice there really is in the world, and how one copes, or doesn’t with that. It is a thought-provoking tragedy of someone imprisoned by his certainty. And in the final analysis, Robertson, who is one of Scotland’s more respected novelists—and deservedly so—may well have accomplished what he set out to do in revitalizing public awareness of the Lockerbie bombing. 

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