Michael Palin is famous for a number of things, most notably being one of the six members of that amazing comedy troupe Monty Python of the 60s, 70s and beyond, and then in the 80s, after a bit of dabbling in films (such as A Fish Called Wanda), beginning a long and successful career of making travel documentaries around the world. As a result, he has garnered a huge following for his various works across his life, and on top of everything else he seems like a really nice guy (if you don’t believe me, read his diaries which have been published in volumes based on different stages of his career and life).
Back in 1994, he wrote his first novel Hemingway’s Chair, which sprung out of an obvious love for Ernest Hemingway himself. As some of you might remember, I read this a while ago and wasn’t overly impressed – it wasn’t a bad book, but I somehow expected something more from Palin. Finally, in 2012 he released his second work of fiction, entitled The Truth, and it turns out the wait was absolutely worth it as he has finally written the kind of book I always hoped he would.
The Truth centres around Keith Mabbut, who is a one hit wonder environmental journalist whose attempts to uncover the wrongdoings of companies regarding the environment stalled his career, leaving him with less satisfying journalism work. Right as he decides to throw in the towel and begin working on a novel, he gets an offer that seems too good to be true – to write a biography of the ever elusive humanitarian worker, and his hero, Hamish Melville. More than this, he is offered a lot of money, provided that he does it according to the strict timelines and rules that his employer, Ron Latham, demands. And so Keith is flung into India to track down Melville, where he finds himself increasingly admiring the man while circling ever closer to the truth behind the whole ordeal – who is Melville really, and why does Latham really want Mabbut to write this biography?
The writing is eloquent and beautifully evocative of the wildly contrasting settings within the book, from the blistering cold of Scotland, the hustle and bustle of London to the wide range of different scenery and lifestyles of Indian people that Keith meets throughout his travels. Palin has always been great at writing, but it is quite clear that much of where, who and what he writes about has been drawn from his own travel experiences, which are much more vast now than they would have been two decades ago when he wrote his first novel. I found from reading this that I really wanted to visit a lot of these places in India, to see the beautiful places of which he speaks, and to meet the differing cultures that flourish there. I suspect that much of what he speaks of in the novel – of these cultures being under threat from the Western world trying to march in for various reasons – is probably quite close to the truth as well, somewhat sadly.
But what really makes this book better than his first, apart from the much more enjoyable storyline, is the characters. Where they were a bit awkward and almost not likeable in his first fictional outing, the characters in The Truth are fascinating. Keith is someone who you do feel sympathy for, and he is definitely full of flaws and regrets in his life, but he genuinely means well in everything he does and he manages to have enough successes to not come off as a total bumbling fool. Hamish Melville is every bit mysterious as he was intended to be, and while he is intriguing of course he is not without his flaws either, which soon start to show as the story goes on. And Ron Latham, well, let’s just say if I ever met someone like him I would struggle not to punch them in the face. He is arrogant, rude and full of himself, overly controlling, and definitely sinister. A very well constructed villain, based on a type of person who definitely exists in this world in plenty.
I also love the way this story picks apart the concept of “the truth” as well. It is clear that Mabbut wants to be the kind of journalist to tell the truth, and never more so than in this biography of Melville, and yet it is pointed out to him that a lot of his smaller jobs had been telling blatant lies to make companies look good just so he’d get his pay check, something he comes to regret. And while we slowly discover the truth about Melville, and that of Latham’s motives, the novel really makes it quite clear that truth isn’t a static or objective thing – it changes and is influenced by a whole host of different factors, and what the truth is to one person might not be the same to another. So instead, as Mabbut tries to find his own truth, he pits the importance of certain truths against others in what really becomes a tale of social justice, and the way Palin brings this all together is really quite stunning (and far better expressed than my current rambling).
The Truth, then, is a beautifully crafted, honest story that feels like it is very personal for Palin, and is one of the best novels I have read in quite a while. If you haven’t read this, I strongly recommend you treat yourself as you won’t regret it! As one of his reviews stated, I hope we don’t have to wait as long for his third novel.
Have you read any of Michael Palin’s books, or seen his documentaries? What are your thoughts? Would you read this?
What other novels involving travel have you read that you would recommend?