The Truth – Michael Palin’s brilliant second novel

The TruthMichael 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?

And Now For Something Completely Different: Several Monty Python members write books

This may not come as much of a surprise to many, but I am, and for as long as I remember always have been, an immense fan of Monty Python. As a child I remember watching two of their movies, The Holy Grail and The Meaning of Life, over and over, loving the silliness of The Holy Grail (which to this day is my favourite film) and pretending to get the jokes in The Meaning of Life. As I hit my adult years, I discovered the other Monty Python movies, then discovered the television show they made, Monty Python’s Flying Circus, and quickly digested all forty-five episodes. I even managed to find most of the albums they made (including my favourite, Monty Python’s Contractual Obligation Album, which must be the funniest audio recording of all time).

But now I had ignited something deep within me, an insatiable hunger for more of this comedic genius. I re-watched John Cleese’s brilliant Fawlty Towers. I discovered the odd comedy Terry Jones and Michael Palin produced around the same time called Ripping Yarns. I watched the television shows the Monty Python crew had starred in before coming together. I watched movies that featured some of the pythons, such as A Fish Called Wanda and Erik The Viking. I even watched all of Michael Palin’s travel documentaries (which I must say were thoroughly enjoyable). With a little room left for dessert, it occurred to me I should look into whether any of them wrote books – in particular if any of them wrote fiction. And it turns out, some of them did.

The three books I intend to look at are the novels The Road To Mars by Eric Idle, Hemingway’s Chair by Michael Palin, and the non-fiction volume Calcium Made Interesting by Graham Chapman.

The Road to Mars by Eric Idle

This bizarre novel is perhaps one of the most thought provoking and insightful books both of and about comedy I have ever read. Set vaguely in the future, it follows the story of two comedians, Muscroft and Ashby, who suddenly find all their gigs along an inter-planetary vaudeville circuit called ‘The Road To Mars’ are cancelled, for no explicable reason. Thrown into the mix are divas, mastermind terrorists, a micropaleontologist (who studies the evolutionary implications of the last ten minutes) as the narrator, and my favourite character, Carlton, a robot who is attempting to decipher the essence of comedy, and why he as a robot doesn’t understand or appreciate it. It is through this last character that the novel seems to split, being partly a hilarious science fiction tale rather similar to the work of Douglas Adams (which is interesting, as Adams had cited the Pythons as being an influence on him), and partly a dissertation on comedy, coming from somebody who frankly is in a position to ponder the art of humour so philosophically. I was pleasantly surprised by this novel, and would recommend it to anyone who is a fan of comedy on any level (which surely covers most people).

Hemingway’s Chair by Michael Palin

I have mentioned this novel briefly before on my blog, as this was a book I only got around to reading quite recently. It is a very English story, set in a small English village, mostly around a post office (I know, not exactly a setting that bounds with excitement). Martin Sproale is assistant postmaster, and is obsessed with Hemingway, but when he is beaten to the position of postmaster by an outsider, Nick Marshall, who then steals his girlfriend and brings controversial changes to the post office, much to the annoyance of the workers and villagers, Martin soon has to find inspiration to fight back, as his hero would. It sounds inspiring in a sort of humble way, and as I read it I kept expecting it to make me leap up and cheer for Martin, but I just don’t know that it did. The book ended up being a lot stranger than I had anticipated, and when I finished I wasn’t entirely sure what to think. It wasn’t bad, by any means, but it isn’t a book I think I’ll be in a hurry to read again. Having said that, the writing was lovely and very evocative, and there were some funny moments in the story. If you’re a fan of Hemingway, or of Michael Palin, it is definitely worth a read, but it probably isn’t for everyone.

Calcium Made Interesting by Graham Chapman (edited by Jim Yoakum)

This is an anthology containing, as the front cover states, various “sketches, essays, letters, gondolas”, but also monologues, teleplays, articles both by himself and also by others about him, and much more. Throughout them all, these pieces and fragments reveal the many sides of Chapman, from the anarchist who liked silliness for its own sake, to the man who campaigned tirelessly for gay rights, who became a qualified doctor only to walk away from medicine for comedy, and who became one of the most influential comedians of his time. The book is fascinating, intelligent, but most of all just downright hilarious – from the first page beginning with “This book is dedicated to the following apology” (which is then followed by an apology letter he wrote to a pub), through to the “What you may have missed by skimming through this book” page included at the end. I often found myself laughing to the point of being in pain while reading this, so if you are a Monty Python fan, I absolutely urge you to find this book and read it.

Have you read any of these books before, and if so, what were your opinions? Would you be interested in reading them if you haven’t yet done so? And lastly, are there any comedians you love who have written books you also enjoyed?

30 Day Book Challenge Day 18 – A book that disappointed me

Conveniently, I have just finished reading a book which disappointed me, which is of course disappointing, but it at least gives me something to talk about for this blog. It is always a strange feeling when you do read a book, which you had a certain amount of expectation for, only to find that it doesn’t quite leave you feeling content. It’s not necessarily a bad book, but just not as good as you would have hoped. It doesn’t happen to me very often, because I try to go into reading books with no expectations, but sometimes it can’t be helped.

Hemingway's ChairIn this particular case, the book which disappointed me a little is Hemingway’s Chair by Michael Palin. Yes, the same Michael Palin from all the travel documentaries, and one of the members of the Monty Python comedy troupe. I have always love the comedy work of Monty Python, and have read books by other members of the group which I loved. I have read Michael Palin’s diaries from the Python years, which I found highly entertaining, and I have also admired his travel work. So you can sort of see why I had my hopes up for this, his only fictional novel.

Written in the mid 1990s, Hemingway’s Chair tells the story of Martin Sproale, a man in his mid thirties who still lives with his mother, in a small English village, working at a local post office, and growing his obsession with Ernest Hemingway. He is your typically pitiful protagonist who has no confidence, and absolutely no clue, and when he is beaten to the postmaster job by an ambitious outsider, who also steals his girlfriend, he reaches a point in which he must choose between defeat, or fighting for his beliefs, as Hemingway would. It sounds charming, and indeed in many ways is – the writing itself is particularly eloquent and very quintessentially English. But Martin is just too much, too weird, so much so that he isn’t likeable, and what changes do appear in his character during the story just seem bizarre and unlikely. It was one of those books where I read it, got to the end, and as I put it down, thought to myself “what just happened?” Not because I don’t get it, I understood the significance of the ending, and how the story all tied together but…I don’t know. I just didn’t like it as much as I hoped I would. It is a great piece of writing, and it captures a certain kind of Englishness very well, as anybody who has ever lived in a small English village will probably agree, but I just can’t help but think that Michael Palin is capable of so much more, of something much bigger, bolder and more powerful than this.

Have you ever read a book that disappointed you? If so, do you know why it disappointed you?