JAMES Robertson has a problem. No matter how often he tells people that his latest novel, The Professor of Truth, isn’t a retelling of the Lockerbie disaster, he realises that people won’t believe him.
Look, he’ll point out, the name of the Scottish town where the blown-apart airliner crashed isn’t even mentioned. Nor are the names of any of the most prominent figures in both the atrocity itself and the subsequent trial. The country thought to be responsible for the plot isn’t named: there are no dates, no real names, only the sketchiest bit of geography. So it’s not Lockerbie.
On the other hand, it is about a bereaved man trying to find out who really was responsible for blowing up an airliner above the Scottish Borders a couple of decades ago. And how many other times has that ever happened apart from the tragedy that befell Pan Am Flight 103?
“It’s not a roman à clef,” Robertson insists. “It’s not thinly disguised history. But it is my attempt through fiction to investigate and explore some of the issues that come out of an event like that.”
“Inevitably, people are going to read it as being about Lockerbie. I don’t blame them for that and I don’t expect anything else.”
He knows too, that no matter how much he protests that it’s not the case, people are going to think that he modelled his central character, Alan Tealing, a lecturer in English at a Scottish university, on Dr Jim Swire’s grief-fuelled quest for justice.
So why, given that his readers are inescapably going to see the real disaster and the real participants behind his fiction, was he so determined to write the book he has?
His answer is, essentially, that fiction can sometimes uncover truths about the past that other ways of exploring it – the law, journalism, history – sometimes cannot reach. The historical record is invariably patchy, and no matter how much one does one’s research, there will inevitably be gaps: a conscientious novelist, Robertson argues, might indeed be able to fill them in better than most. In Joseph Knight, his fiction boldly went where the historical record never did, showing what might have happened to Knight after he won his freedom from slavery in a 1778 landmark case at Edinburgh’s Court of Session. With his new book, that fictional exploration of Scotland’s past moves that bit nearer the present. His purpose here isn’t only to invent a credibly imagined world – but also to highlight what he is convinced is a very real miscarriage of justice.
I meet Robertson in his Edinburgh flat. Beyond the kitchen window, the clouds are grey and heavy, pushing slowly south over Arthur’s Seat. To me, and I suspect to millions of others, the Lockerbie affair was like those heavy clouds: it passed over us in endless headlines and stories while we remained unquestioning below. We read about the plots, the official one and the rival one. We became used to seeing the footage, the wreckage of Pan Am 103 incongruously gouged into a Dumfriesshire hillside. For years and years, the story rumbled on, and those of us lucky enough not to be directly affected felt a fading sadness for those who were. After decades, though, that sadness turned to boredom, that initial newsflash shock to apathy. Weren’t there 15,000 witness statements? Weren’t there experts to sift through them and put the truth together? Couldn’t we trust them, the way we trust meteorologists to tell us in what direction the clouds are going?
What I really wanted to know from Robertson is why his reaction was so different to mine, why he cared so much about the Lockerbie affair. At what moment did he begin to think justice wasn’t being done? What was it that seeded it in his mind as a subject for a novel?
I suspect I half know the answer to the first question. Allan Massie has noted that there is a “sort of Orwellian decency” about Robertson’s writing, and that’s true about the man too. It isn’t just Dr Alan Tealing – his fictional hero in the novel and the man who gives it its title – who is searching for truth and justice. So is Robertson. Because if Abdelbaset Ali Al-Megrahi was innocent, the people who really planted the Lockerbie bomb are still out there.
And if that’s the case, Robertson believes, the Scottish judicial system is seriously flawed. As this newspaper pointed out six months ago, in an article looking ahead to the books that would be published this year, the subject matter of Robertson’s new novel – “the most eagerly anticipated one of the year from a Scottish author” – could hardly be more ambitious or demanding.
As the novel opens, Robertson’s protagonist Alan Tealing is decades into his investigation of what is simply referred to as The Case. The Case involves the framing of an innocent man (Khalil Khazar) who has died of cancer after having been imprisoned on the dubious evidence of a taxi driver who took him to the airport on the Island – where, intelligence experts insist, a bomb was placed on board a feeder flight.
After the explosion – in which his American wife and their daughter died – Tealing’s obsessive research into The Case leads him to be convinced that Khazar was innocent. When a dying CIA agent visits Tealing and explains why deception was necessary in order to protect a sleeper agent in a terrorist cell in Germany who made the real bomb, The Case finally begins to look provable.
The CIA man’s visit takes place in the dark depths of the Scottish winter. But when he reveals the address in Australia where the taxi driver can be found living a new life, the novel’s tone changes dramatically. The cold, semi-abstract exposition of The Case has stopped. We’re getting warmer –literally as well as metaphorically – and when Tealing heads off to Australia there is at least a possibility of finding a solution.
Robertson started writing The Professor of Truth in 2011, a year after finishing his novel And the Land Lay Still, a hugely ambitious (and at 688 pages also just huge) portrait of the changes in Scottish life since the Second World War. He had always followed the Lockerbie case and by this time had long doubted the official version of events. “I can’t tell you the precise moment,” he says, “but I remember reading reports of the Camp Zeist trial and thinking there was something not quite right even though I couldn’t pin down what it was”.
He had also started writing a story about someone who had lost family in a Lockerbie-like atrocity. “I wanted to put myself in that person’s shoes and think how it would have affected them – not just the terrible loss of losing your family in such a horrible way, but the fact that the ramifications from that event go on and on for a quarter of a century. I wondered how all of that would affect the individual’s life.”
As this had actually happened to Jim Swire. Did Robertson have him in mind while writing the novel? “I did my best not to. I was actually quite clear in my head that I shouldn’t compromise myself by worrying about that side of things. If I worried about whether anyone was going to be upset, I wouldn’t write the book I wanted to. I showed the book to him after I had finished it as a courtesy because inevitably people were going to make assumptions and draw parallels. His response was very encouraging, which was a great relief.”
Two years ago, Robertson began to realise that his growing belief that there had been a miscarriage of justice in the Lockerbie trial and his planned story about someone who had lost loved ones in a similar disaster weren’t separate issues. Instead, he could bring them together in a novel.
Already, he knew the case backwards. He’d trawled everything he could find about the lengthy legal proceedings. “People don’t do that unless they are absolutely obsessed by the case, but I have. I don’t expect other people to get into the case at that level. But a novel is a way in which people can have their interest triggered and maybe even though this is fiction, within it readers might find something that explains why so many people are convinced that there has been a miscarriage of justice.”
At this point, let’s get back to the novel. The main thing to say about The Professor of Truth is that it does indeed do what Robertson intended – to strip away that dismissive, bored “Oh, not bloody Lockerbie again!” reaction by using fiction to tell a similar story. The first half of the novel, set in Scotland, is written with great technical ability. Tealing is essentially retelling his conversation with the dying CIA agent, but in the process the reader learns about his marriage and family, the depth of his grief, his job, his relationship with a university colleague – and of course, about the terrorist attack that wrecked his life. Cleverly, the plot is told in semi-abstract terms (The Case, the Island etc), so even though the rest of Robertson’s fictional world is sufficiently distinct from the real Lockerbie case, the reader still mentally flits back towards it.
When that happens, something else does too: all the big questions – the very ones that journalism, the history books and the law don’t make much room for – come roaring back, refreshed. Can anyone ever get to the truth about the past? Can the law do that – or is truth just a bystander in an argument between prosecution and defence? And is it even worth finding out the truth, when that might involve such great loss, such unimaginable pain? Shouldn’t we forget the past altogether, bandage up that pain, and do our utmost to move on?
These are hard questions, antithetical to any simplistic discussion of Lockerbie. But as well as exploring contemporary events, Robertson is writing a novel of ideas, and he’s honest enough – this is that “Orwellian decency” Massie noticed – to raise questions that are awkward and challenging to his own side of the argument.
A disillusioned lawyer counsels Tealing against ever expecting to hear the real truth from a court case. A woman he meets in Australia who has also suffered appalling loss urges Tealing to stoically accept the randomness of fate instead of obsessively searching for the truth.
These are voices you wouldn’t hear were Robertson a lesser novelist, stacking the deck in favour of making a propagandistic point on behalf of a cause he supports. But he doesn’t: he’s too good for that.
He questions everything – even his own craft as a novelist. Sometimes, he admits, he shares the doubts that Tealing, a lecturer in English literature, has about its importance. “Most writers who think about this seriously,” says Robertson, “do wonder whether their craft is superficial. But it’s good to doubt. Doubt is one of the great virtues. That’s what allows progress to happen and societies to be more civilised and settled and open-minded.”
And though he was talking about his craft, he could be talking about the reason he wrote The Professor of Truth too. Because this is a novel written out of doubt about the Scottish justice system. “There seems to me to be a big stain on it because of Lockerbie. If in some small way the publication of this book helps, if it gets sufficient attention, to push the door open a bit so we can get this thing sorted out, that’d be fine.”
• The Professor of Truth by James Robertson is published by Hamish Hamilton, price £16.99. He will be talking about the book at 7pm on Thursday (6 June) at Summerhall, Edinburgh. Tickets £5 from Waterstones, 128 Princes Street Edinburgh.