Keith Mabbut, the protagonist of Michael Palin’s second novel, The Truth, represents, in this age of climate change and rampant capitalism, an updated version of the failed academic: the failed environmentalist. Like Michael Beard from Ian McEwan’s Solar and Walter Bergland from Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, Mabbut is middle-aged and full of compromise. He, too, has relationship problems, and his career has failed to measure up to early potential.
One of the advantages, it seems, of the failed-environmentalist protagonist is the way an author gets to confront the character with something much larger than themselves, which both makes them feel small in comparison and forces them to accept their own limitations. In The Truth, Mabbut’s foil is manifold: the destruction and ransacking of nutrient-rich geographies of India, a business of publishing, and a seemingly perfect figure whose life it is Mabbut’s job to chronicle. Once a promising, award-winning environmental journalist, Mabbut now earns money by writing puff books for oil companies, like Triumph in Adversity: The Official History of the Sullom Voe Oil Terminal. He and his wife have separated, his daughter Jay has taken up with an Iranian refugee, and his son, who lives with the mother, takes a guarded approach to his father. Sickened with his hackwork, Mabbut decides to finally get serious about his planned trilogy of novels, only to get interrupted by an offer he can’t refuse: the biography of Hamish Melville, a famously reclusive environmental activist. Though suspicious of the publisher’s intentions (the outfit, after all, is ominously called Urgent Books), Mabbut sets off to India to find the renowned crusader.