The book’s epigraph is “Truth is a very complex thing.” Indeed it is and Michael Palin’s second novel tackles that question within the world of publishing and environmental causes. Given the title of the book (and the hint in the epigraph) it is hardly a spoiler to suggest that nothing is quite what it seems. Thus the stage is set for Michael Palin’s eco-thriller, which raises some relevant questions about the definition of truth, the price of truth, and the meaning of being “true to oneself”.
The protagonist is Keith Mabbut, a jaded environmentalist and, other than a one-time high profile book, a distinctly success-less writer. He had made some headway as an environmental journalist, and become quite well thought of. His exposure of a water company involved in releasing toxic discharge into a local river brought him an award and some notoriety, but when he tried to follow up this success, he found many of the old doors closed.
When we meet him, he is at his lowest: he’s practically bankrupt, his wife is trying to divorce him, his relationship with his children is precarious at best and, quite honestly, he isn’t the best of men (“a good friend’s wife, with whom he’d had a very brief affair”). What’s worse, he has just completed a job that is the proverbial nail in the coffin of his eco-ambitions – he’s been paid to write a book which is essentially a glossy cover up by a big oil company. Up until this point, despite being hopelessly inadequate in everything else, he has been able to delude himself that he is at least, if nothing else, truthful.
There were no expectations and therefore no consequences. And no lies.
And yet he is hoping to cling on to the last vestiges of his dignity and his dreams:
[He wanted] something bold and ambitious in scope, a project that would need time and care and attention, but which, if it worked, could be breathtaking. He had made it quite clear to his agent that this time he would not compromise truth and integrity by selling himself to the highest bidder.
Or so he thinks. Mabbut is suddenly offered something that can only be described as his “dream job”: lots of money to write the ultimate biography of the environmental legend and enigma, Hamish Melville. Our mopish hero suspects something is amiss but is desperate and vain enough to persuade himself to take on the job. Not to disclose any more, suffice it to say, it gets increasingly complicated.
Palin has created an interesting thriller about truth, its compromises, and the grey areas between; throwing a very cynical light on publishing and the media: how even admirable goals, as in our battle for the environment, can be fought in some very murky waters.
My only bone of contention is that, as the book progresses, the tension could be wracked up a notch. Instead, while it is all neatly executed and undeniably well-written, Palin’s intentionally dry style never quite creates the absolute urgency needed to turn this into the brainy, breathless ride it really ought to be.
Perhaps it is about managing expectations – and mine were high – because in Michael Palin we have a writer of skill, a person who can credibly convey the serious issues at hand and a traveller himself. There are a lot of clues to where this heading, which results rather in a subduing of the suspense, than in adding to it. Or perhaps it is simply that the title is too obvious (hardly flattering to a reader’s intelligence, I might add) and the more ambiguous “An Honest Man”(read it and see if you agree!) would have put a different spin on the events as they unfold.
This is nevertheless a good book and it’s a pleasure to enjoy Palin’s customary wry wit. The first line, “Keith Mabbut was a writer. Of that he was convinced” is indicative of the underlying irony, and the taunt it implies are delicious and promising.
Farud, so loquacious the previous day, was barely speaking to Mabbut now. It was abundantly clear that Farud found the whole new direction of their tour beneath him. He was a temple man. A highly qualified architectural archivist and historian with a wealth of knowledge available, for a relatively modest sum, to like-minded clients. He was not an outback man, or an adventurer, or a humper of heavy things up steep slopes. He was a scholar. Only this morning he had secured, after considerable effort, privileged access to some of the more erotic corners of the famous Black Temple of Konark.
The combination of wit, travel and plot are delightful and, while it’s true (excuse moi) that I felt a tad thwarted in expectations, I would still recommend it as a “clever holiday read”. One thing is certain: in the right hands, this is going to make a thrilling film… with a different name.