Review: The Professor of Truth, By James Robertson

As the 25th anniversary approaches, James Robertson is the first British novelist to tackle the Pan Am Flight 103 terrorist outrage

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The Independent Culture

After the horror of 9/11, American novelists almost immediately turned to their laptops and began writing. From Claire Messud to Don DeLillo, they began mythologising an event that already seemed to belong to myth the moment it unfolded on television, seeing it as a defining point in their nation's history. Britain's equivalent terrorist horror had come some years before, in 1988, when Pan Am Flight 103 blew up over the small town of Lockerbie in the Scottish Borders, killing almost 300 people in total. Yet there was no similar attempt, by Scottish or British novelists, to mythologise what had happened. Did they not see it, then, as a defining moment?

It would seem not. Yet those of us who are old enough can remember exactly what we were doing when news of that attack came through. At first it looked like a crash, then the truth quickly emerged. Or at least, what purported to be the truth: a bomb had been detonated on board, and two Libyan nationals were fingered for the crime. Both men eventually stood trial in the Netherlands, and one of them, Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison. Ten years later he was released on compassionate grounds with terminal cancer. He died in Libya last year.

It was an event that had political ramifications for a long time afterwards, never mind the huge personal ones for the relatives of those who died. And it is still causing controversy – many believe al-Megrahi to have been innocent and suspect a cover-up at the highest levels. Yet still, novelists have left this subject alone. Until now. James Robertson's repeated assertions, though, that his novel is not “about” Lockerbie but rather “inspired” by it, perhaps reinforces that sense of reluctance on this side of the Atlantic to take ownership of such an attack to really explore it and set it in some kind of cultural context – in contrast to our American friends who grabbed the later assault on their land with both hands.

If that is so, then such reluctance is misplaced, for the first half of Robertson's novel is really quite superb. With perfect pace and tone that mirror beautifully both the character and his setting, he carefully builds a sense of menace, as an American stranger, Ted Nilsen, arrives one snowy day to speak to Alan Tealing, while simultaneously leadening it with the everyday reality of grief that will not go away. Tealing's wife and daughter were killed when their US-bound flight was blown up 18 years previously; deliberate, self-conscious, inward-looking, he is a man who still carries the burden of his losses, seeming eternally stooped by the weight of them. Unconvinced by the subsequent trial and conviction of one man for the attack, he has investigated on his own, building a “Case” in a room in his house, unable, as friends and relatives see it, to “let go”.

Tealing is all too believable a figure in his still-traumatised state, stuck in his university job that isn't offering real fulfilment – his attempted research on a minor wartime English writer cannot hope to compete with the “Case” – and able only to offer a colleague, Carol Pritchley, the limited comfort of an on-off relationship. Will Nilsen's revelations of the part his government played in the attack help him come to terms with his losses, enable him to “move on”? Or will they simply confuse what he already knows?

It's never quite so simple as either/ or, of course. Tealing wants to know the truth of the whole affair, and as a professor of English Literature he should know that there are only “truths”, never a single version. Robertson never eases the tension of this meeting between Tealing and Nilsen, offering only the relief of flashbacks into Tealing's short-lived but happy marriage, or the moment a friend called him about the plane crash, or the days he spent in the small town where the plane came down, looked after by a kindly woman, Mrs Hastie, who gave him a room in her house. These are the glimpses that make us voyeurs but they are necessary and vital ones.

When Nilsen does leave, and the novel takes a different direction, there is more relief coupled with a sense of dissatisfaction that Tealing must share with the reader. The premise which the first half of the novel has set up is huge: what kind of subsequent direction could possibly satisfy him or us? Robertson's choices here are novelistic ones, and he makes novelistic decisions that can, given the history that is driving them, feel less than they should be. What answers can be found in a novel about such horror and such loss is perhaps the greatest challenge. Ultimately, though, Robertson deserves plaudits for stepping up to the plate when so many others have not.