- Michael Palin
- Thomas Dunne Books
- 272 pp.
- Reviewed by Randy Cepuch
- August 21, 2013
A former actor and writer for the British comedy team Monty Python brings his talent to bear in an engaging novel with a serious theme.
There are certain people (both Warren Buffett and Jimmy Buffett come to mind) whom I wouldn’t mind trading lives with. Michael Palin is high on that list.
Palin was a founding member of the revered British comedy troupe Monty Python, for which he created and played memorable characters like the lumberjack and the “dead parrot” vendor. He went on to become a respected writer and actor in films such as “Time Bandits” and “A Fish Called Wanda.” Meanwhile, he perfected globetrotting with a series of amazing journeys — circumnavigating the planet in 80 days without flying, trekking from the North Pole to the South Pole and making a complete circuit of the Pacific Ocean, for example — documented in hugely popular BBC shows, and he served as president of the Royal Geographical Society. He has an asteroid and two British trains named after him. By pretty much all accounts, he’s a fine human being.
And — it’s practically unfair — the man can write. He has written eight books about his travel expeditions, several Python-related titles, five children’s books, a play and a well received novel called Hemingway’s Chair.
The Truth is his second foray into fiction — a statement that sounds, all by itself, like a set-up for a Python sketch. But Palin’s latest work isn’t all that funny, nor is it meant to be. It relies more on his experiences as a traveler (and an environmental activist) than on his sense of humor.
His lead character, Keith Mabbut, is a middle-aged writer who once enjoyed acclaim as an environmental journalist but has been reduced to doing highly sanitized puff pieces for oil companies. Mabbut is separated from his wife, struggling to communicate with his two teenage children and chasing women who don’t want to be caught (at least not by him). He has talked for years about writing a science-fiction book (one that his agent assures him won’t interest publishers) and has just decided to move ahead with it when he gets an irresistible offer to take on a very different project: a detailed look at the publicity-shy Hamish Melville, a wealthy and spry septuagenarian seemingly beloved around the world for his efforts to prevent corporations from displacing populations and fouling resources.
It seems, to Mabbut, like a dream come true; a very rewarding project in every sense of the word, one that might well restore his self-confidence and shore up his crumbling interpersonal relationships. Almost immediately, he’s gently disabused that all will go swimmingly: The current paramour of his soon-to-be ex-wife turns out to be not just the best source for locating Melville, but also an infuriatingly nice guy.
The quest takes Mabbut to some of the remotest parts of the Indian subcontinent, among other places. It doesn’t take long for him to connect with Melville, by happy accident, Mabbut believes. The two spend several days together and Mabbut is there when Melville quietly engineers a major victory for an indigenous group threatened by corporate development.
Mabbutt admires Melville’s determination and clarity and sees the latter as nudging him toward the truth his publisher told him to seek. While there are a few hints that his hero is a mere mortal (he smokes, for instance), Mabbut concludes that Melville is about as good as good gets, and he delivers a manuscript that says as much. To his surprise, his publisher doesn’t like it and feels there must be more to the story. Mabbut, who felt he’d already done a very thorough job, digs even deeper, reluctantly following leads provided by the publisher’s research staff. He unearths new doubts about almost everyone, including himself.
If the title alone doesn’t suggest irony strongly enough, Palin does a superb job of foreshadowing — sometimes in small but effective ways — what you know is coming: Truth is malleable. At one point Mabbut asks his mistress about her reading tastes. Fact or fiction? “Facts are just facts,” she responds. “They don’t amount to a hill of beans. If you want the truth, read Jane Austen.”
Maybe so. And if you’d like to be thoroughly entertained by a more contemporary author, I’d strongly recommend The Truth by Michael Palin.
Randy Cepuch is the author of A Weekend With Warren Buffett and Other Shareholder Meeting Adventures. He thinks Dr. Fegg’s Nasty Book of Knowledge (1976) — a k a Dr. Fegg’s Encyclopedia of All World Knowledge, a collaborative effort by Palin and fellow Python Terry Jones, which includes a travelogue on crossing the Andes by frog — is perhaps the funniest book ever.