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Review: The Professor of Truth, By James Robertson. Hamish Hamilton, £16.99

 

Twenty-one years ago, Alan Tealing’s wife and daughter were killed in the bombing of a transatlantic flight over Scotland. Tealing, a lecturer in English literature at a Scottish university, has dedicated the years since to “The Case” – “the gathering and sifting of information, the analysis of so-called facts and challenging of so-called evidence”.

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Following an international investigation, a man named Khalil Khazar is found guilty, imprisoned on the evidence of the taxi driver who drove him to the airport on the island where,  according to intelligence experts, the bomb was put on board a feeder flight. Khazar is now dead, and the case supposedly closed, but Tealing has a “blinkered faith” in Khazar’s innocence. Then, without warning, a dying CIA agent with a conscience to clear turns up with the address of the taxi driver. With this in hand, Tealing leaves Scotland for the Australian outback in search of the truth.

If much of the story sounds familiar, that’s because it is. Although not a novel about the Lockerbie disaster – Pam Am Flight 103, destroyed by a bomb over  the Scottish town in 1988 – it is, according to Robertson, a novel that has “grown out of” it. This blurring of fact and fiction has proved problematic for some critics, particularly as Robertson has expressed uncertainty about the real-life conviction of Abdelbaset al-Megrahi. He has appeared at events with Jim Swire, the doctor who lost his daughter on Pam Am Flight 103.

To get bogged down in these issues, however, is to ignore much of the novel’s beauty. Imprisoned in a “Chateau d’If” of his own making, Tealing believes only the truth will set him free, but soon learns that this search for a single, objective narrative is impossible. The truth is not “pure and separate”, a lecturer in jurisprudence tells him: “It is dirty and decayed and has frayed edges, and holes and tears… The last thing the truth does is gleam.”

The Professor of Truth is a wonderful meditation on the “slippery substance” we set so much stock by, but it’s also about the truths literature allows us to tell.

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