Current reviews
  Reviews by title
  Reviews by author

  Contact Onyx

  Discussion forum


Onyx reviews: The Truth by Michael Palin

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 travelogue.

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 him 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 agent. 

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 on a journey outside his comfort zone, Mabbut resists at first, but finally acquiesces. 

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 people 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 his daughter.

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 enthusiasm. People's 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 rewarding...or destructive.

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.

Web site and all contents © Copyright Bev Vincent 2013. All rights reserved.