Keith Mabbut is a British writer and a nice guy in his mid-50s whose wife, Krystyna, wants a divorce because she has found a more satisfying relationship with another man. They have two adult children whose childhoods he missed out on and whom he barely knows now. And for good measure, he has money troubles.
Mabbut was a well-respected investigative environmental journalist. In recent years, however, he’s resorted to writing for whomever will pay him. As “The Truth” opens, he is wrapping up a whitewash on a major oil company’s operations in Scotland. He hates it. And he hates not being the author he thought he should be.
With nothing scheduled, he outlines a novel, his first. He envisions something grand about the dawn of civilization, or something like that. He doesn’t have all the details sorted out, but he’s ready to go. That’s when his longtime agent, Silla, calls with a proposal that would do more than pay his debts. It would restore his reputation. Despite his best efforts to turn her away, he’s intrigued.
It’s a biography of a gentleman about 70 named Hamish Melville. He’s an internationally known environmental activist and humanitarian - and someone who over the years has made clear he doesn’t want to talk to any writers. Melville moves from cause to cause, helping anonymous villages prevent industrial projects in South America, Africa and Asia.
Mabbut, through his wife’s new beau, learns that Melville is in India. His publisher wants to control the research to prep for Mabbut’s job, but Mabbut will have none of it. Among the conditions under which he accepts the job is that he find Melville and get the story his own way.
He does, and after some fits and starts - Melville’s suspicions approach paranoia - Mabbut finds himself spending time with the activist. Melville, however, can sniff out a reporter, and only slowly comes around. Melville finally agrees that Mabbut can write about his activities, but makes clear he doesn’t want the book to be about him.
Mabbut’s adventures in India involve almost getting killed by a band of extremists; like Melville, they want to help local villagers, but they have a decidedly different agenda. Along the way, Mabbut’s eyes are opened to the simple life the villagers often lead and the harm that a nearby giant aluminum refinery would cause to the way they’ve always lived - not to mention their health.
Mabbut gets good material from Melville and knows that by interviewing many of Melville’s associates, he can write a biography both of them could be proud of.
He does just that, and then the publisher balks. The publisher says it makes Melville look too good, too honorable, too clean. In short, he wants some dirt, and he gives Mabbut the name of someone who can supply it.
Mabbut interviews the individual but doesn’t like him or trust what he says. He also learns that Melville had a life about which Mabbut knew nothing. Mabbut performs additional research and includes this in the book because the publisher, who had given him a considerable advance, demands it.
It isn’t until after Mabbut submits the manuscript that he learns that the publishing firm is one of many subsidiaries owned by a company that also funds the construction of giant projects that Melville has spent much of his life fighting against. He realizes he’s been used to ruin someone he greatly admires.
“The Truth” is filled with truths, some obvious, some enlightening and some of which are at odds with others. Mabbut’s search for a truth he can live with makes for a remarkable - and heartwarming - adventure.
The author, Michael Palin, lives in London. He’s written a number of nonfiction books, and this is his second novel.
Walt Braun is the editorial page editor at the Manhattan Mercury.