Thursday, August 15, 2013

“Sometimes you can tell the truth better through stories.”

The Truth
by Michael Palin

The quote above is one of more than a dozen that wrestle with the nature of truth in this second novel by writer, globe-hopper, and former-Python, Michael Palin. At the heart of this struggle is Keith Mabbut. Keith was once a crusading investigative journalist, but the hard realities of life have turned him into more of a paid corporate hack. Having just wrapped his latest commissioned work, he’s finally about to indulge in a passion project, his first novel. He queries Tess, a lady friend:
’Do you prefer fact or fiction?’
‘Oh, fiction every time. I hate facts.’
‘Facts are just facts.’ She shrugged dismissively. ‘They don’t amount to a row of beans. If you want the truth, read Jane Austen.’
Tess has a point, but hers is one of many views that are examined in this morality play. Interrupting Keith’s well-laid plans is his agent with the best offer he’s received in years. It’s a commission to write a book about the reclusive activist Hamish Melville. For decades, Melville has been a tireless defender of the environment and a crusader on behalf of indigenous peoples. And he’s ducked the press entirely, creating quite the aura of mystery:
“I’m not interested in talking about myself. I’m interested in what I can do, in the time left to me, to prevent a little of the damage we seem hell bent on inflicting on this long-suffering planet. I’m not the story.”
After some internal wrangling, Keith does accept the assignment, along with the punishing six-month deadline. Now all he has to do is unearth a man that no one can find. This leads Keith on a journey far from his comfortable London existence. Eyes are opened. Much is learned. And, indeed, a book is produced. But when the manuscript is submitted at last, the nature of “the truth” again comes into question. Whose truth? And how many of the parties involved have their own agendas that have nothing to do with the truth?

Palin, himself, is a writer who has delved into both fact and fiction—with fact winning out a majority
of the time. The man has exhaustively documented his travels to the remotest corners of the world, and it’s clear that his personal experience has colored the tale he’s chosen to tell. And he tells his tale well in the clear, clean, elegant prose that seems to come so naturally to the British.

The Truth is more character-driven than plot-driven, but as the novel moved towards its inevitable conclusion, I found myself turning pages faster. I had gotten caught up in the story and was hungry for the revelations that finally came. As the character at the center of this study, Keith Mabbut makes a fine protagonist. He’s likeable, idealistic, kind-hearted, and yet still somewhat foolish and flawed. His personal life is in a fair amount of disarray. At the age of 56, he’s got a lot to learn and he knows it.

I remember reading Palin’s debut, Hemingway’s Chair, 15 years ago and anticipating some Python-esque comic novel. That gentle story couldn’t have been further from what I was expecting. This time my expectations were more in line. The Truth also features a certain gentleness and civility—and yes, of course, some humor—but there’s nothing over-the-top or wacky about the tale. It may not be the novel one would expect from a comic genius, but it looks with clear-eyed affection at the human condition. Says one character of the events depicted:
“It would be an interesting cautionary tale. And I trust you enough to know that you would tell it honestly, but charitably, too. Everyone, no matter how admirable they appear to be, is simply human. Prone to all the imperfections, temptations and mendacities that go with the territory.”
Ain’t it the truth.

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