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Onyx reviews: The Truth by
One might expect a novel by a Monty Python alum to be slapstick
hilarious. Or, given that it is by Michael Palin, well-known for documentaries
such as Around the World in 80 Days, for it to be something of a
While the main character, Keith Mabbut, does travel to exotic destinations,
The Truth is neither of these things. It is an introspective novel about a man
who is at a crossroads. Mabbut is a former award-winning investigative journalist
whose exposé of a company that contaminated a stream with arsenic gained
acclaim and notoriety. His sources started to dry up after that, and he found himself
writing puff pieces for corporations, carefully burying their
dirty secrets. He's turned into a hack and pines to write a novel
about the earliest humans. It is not science fiction, he stresses, but rather
historical re-creation. No one encourages this endeavor, most especially his literary
Mabbut has been separated from his wife for two years and his jobs take him
away from home for long stretches, so his now-adult children feel shortchanged.
As the book opens, he's wrapping up a project about the Sullom Voe oil terminal
in the remote northern Shetland Islands. His estranged wife has just informed
him that she wants a divorce to marry someone else. A woman of whom he's grown fond while working on the project
does not encourage his advances.
Now's the time to write the novel, he decides, and spend some time with his
son and daughter. Until, that is, his agent
approaches him with an assignment that seems too good to be true. He has been
hand selected to write the biography of reclusive humanitarian and social activist
Hamish Melville. Gaining access to the publicity-shy man will be challenging, but the
publisher is offering an enormous advance. Like any hero being called to embark
journey outside his comfort zone, Mabbut resists at first, but finally
Though the publisher has a team of researchers,
Mabbut has a secret weapon: his wife's new lover (who he begrudgingly admits to
liking) knows Melville and can point him in the right direction. Mabbut ships
off to India, where he gets to see firsthand the kinds of ecological and social catastrophes that attract Melville's intervention. In
particular, an aluminum mining concern wants to despoil the homeland of indigenous
who have lived there for centuries, mostly in isolation. One sad truth that
Mabbut learns is that, while the people do have a chance
against industrial giants and corruption, to do so they must modernize.
Melville is charismatic and energizing, a Hemingway-esque man who flits about
the world from trouble spot to trouble spot. Mabbut is star-struck by him.
His exciting and sometimes dangerous adventures in India bring about a personal re-awakening. His blood boils against the mercenary attitudes of
corporations wiling to take whatever they want from defenseless people. He's
ready to sign up for Melville's cause. The book almost writes itself. For
the first time in ages, Mabbut is happy—happy with what he's written and
happy about himself. He still holds out hope that
his wife will return to him, and he's making an effort to be a bigger presence
in his children's lives. He even takes in an Iranian refugee, at the behest of
However, after he turns the manuscript in to his publisher, things change. It's "one-note," his editor says. A
testimonial. Without controversy, the book won't sell. He is presented with new
research and charged to dig deeper and find some flaws in the man's character.
Faced with the possible loss of his advance, Mabbut complies, without
motivations are not at all what they at first seemed and he is forced to take a
second look at things he was taking for granted. Palin explores how the pursuit
of the lofty ideal of "truth" can change a person. The absolute truth
of a person or a situation may be impossible to pin down, for it is labyrinthine
and messy and unconstant, but the very act of questioning it can be
Once he gets out of hang-dog mode, Mabbut is a sympathetic character, and readers will
enjoy tagging along with him as he ventures headlong into exotic locales.
There is a subtle but clear environmental subtext that might give some readers
food for thought about the way people are exploited to gain access to the raw materials needed for modern
living, but Palin doesn't insist that anyone but Mabbut subscribe to his
philosophy. The secondary characters are a little on the sketchy side, but the
tale is engaging and, for the most part, fast paced. The resolution to the
Hamish Melville story is somewhat rushed and disappointing (to Mabbut and,
probably, to readers as well), but the final two sentences of the book will take
away some of the sting.
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