You can read a book through different lenses. Most reviewers of The Truth, the second novel by ex-Monty Python comic Michael Palin, read it as mainstream literature. I read it through a narrower lens, as a writer interested in how fiction makers work with environmental themes. Seen in this way, Palin’s book is about hero-worship, and how emotional closeness to a subject can obscure the truth.
Protagonist Keith Mabbut is a divorced, middle-aged writer personally and professionally adrift. In his youth, he won an award for an investigative piece exposing an industrial polluter, but his career stalled out, and now he’s writing histories of oil companies to make ends meet. Mabbut is an intelligent, if easily manipulated man naive despite his years, and when he’s offered a chance to revive his journalism career, he falls into the trap of believing he’s found the truth when, in fact, he asked the wrong questions.
Mabbut’s agent contacts him with a tantalizing project: A second-tier publisher wants to enter the prestige market with a biography of the elusive Hamish Melville, a respected though shy environmental activist with a murky past. No one has ever nailed Melville down, but the publisher thinks Mabbut can. Melville’s reticence should have been the first red flag for Mabbut; name one well-known campaigner in real life who dislikes the camera. But a long time ago, Mabbut believed he could change the world by rooting out environmental evil, and he admires the activist. Unfortunately, Mabbut is unaware of the scales on his eyes.
The writer tracks Melville to India, where Palin’s experience as a travel scribe shines through. The author revels in his exploration of India as a crucible for personal growth as only the English can seven decades after the British Raj. Mabbut emerges as a man grappling with disappointment who thinks he’s found a way out. He’s an almost empty-nester; His son is on his own, and his daughter is getting there. His ex-wife is in a new relationship; Mabbut is unattached and unsure of himself. He finds new direction when he rediscovers a passion for preserving the natural world, and the cultural world of India.
Palin stumbles as Mabbut brings his Melville biography to fruition. After he turns in his manuscript, he’s shocked that the publisher wants revisions. As a former journalist with a few investigative credits, a real-life Mabbut would expect give and take with an editor. And Mabbut isn’t interested in Melville’s dark side until his publisher, who has his own non-editorial agenda, forces Mabbut to ask tough questions. A true investigator enjoys looking under rocks. Mabbut is dragged reluctantly to the ultimate truth about his subject.
Anyone unfamiliar with Palin as an author but familiar with his Monty Python days will go into The Truth expecting high comedy. Instead, Palin delivers a gentle, even sad story about growing older, accepting the inevitable, and understanding that values and self-worth are more important than money. He comes away from the experience true to himself, and if that seems trite, it’s satisfying. Truth is never what you think it ought to be, and it’s a lesson that Mabbut has to learn the hard way.
The Truth is out in paperback this month.