Patrick Skene-Catling

Thrills and spills

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The Truth

Michael Palin

Weidenfeld, pp. 261, £

The singer of the ‘Lumberjack Song’, vendor of the Dead Parrot and leader of the Spanish Inquisition has written another novel. It is Michael Palin’s second, called The Truth. On the cover, a sticker certifies that this is the authentic text ‘as read on BBC Radio 4’, and on the back is a portrait of the national treasure gently smiling, as so often seen on BBC television. It is rather tiresome when publishers exploit electronic achievements to sell written works of fiction; but it would be unfair to penalise Palin for his celebrated niceness. His novel deserves to be judged on its own. The Truth is a very good story, very well told.

The protagonist, Keith Mabbut, is a battered 56-year-old idealist who has betrayed his ideals. When young, he was honoured for writing about a factory whose effluent was polluting the local water supply. But, since then, and for needed money, he has always looked away from the dark side of life. He has written corporate histories, praising companies when aware of how they have done harm. He has just finished research for a book about a Shetland oil terminal, while ignoring a catastrophic off-shore spill.

Yet he still hopes for redemption: he wants to help save the environment and the people who live in it. Now, providentially it seems, his literary agent tells him that a powerful international publisher has offered a fortune for a biography of one Hamish Melville, an elderly anthropologist — ‘an enigmatic maverick, the Action Man of the environmentalist movement’ — who mysteriously moves around the world organising non-violent resistance to destructive industrialists. Though ‘famously reclusive’ , usually refusing interviews and rarely photographed, he is known to have opposed threats of spoliation in Bangladesh, Brazil and Borneo — ‘all the environmental hot spots’.

Palin portrays the triangular relationship between the publisher, agent and writer with sardonic worldliness: the publisher’s ulterior motive is secret; the agent represents the publisher’s interests and her own rather than her client’s. Anyway, Mabbut is eager to support the sort of hero he would like to be, so undertakes the necessary dangerous quest. Thanks to cunning not his own, he soon finds Melville and the heart of the matter in a remote part of India, where intruders are about to ravage a hilltop for bauxite, displacing a tribe who have lived there for millennia.

Palin, as television globe-trotter, actually once witnessed such a confrontation and fictionalises it with sympathetic understanding. His detailed descriptions of India and Indians, in prose that seems honest and natural, are so atmospheric and emotive that without car chases and high explosives he has succeeded in writing a thriller that actually thrills, about a subject that really matters.