The Truth

Michael Palin has the ability to keep the reader turning the page.
Michael Palin has the ability to keep the reader turning the page.

Michael Palin
Weidenfeld & Nicolson, $32.99

Anyone seeing the name Michael Palin and expecting a literary version of the dead parrot sketch will be disappointed in this novel (exotic jungle birds do feature in one scene but they are undeniably alive, at least for the time being).

Palin has come a long way since his Monty Python days: literally, having circumnavigated the globe in his role as genial television travelogue man, and figuratively, having moved on from zany comedy to serious fiction. Well, semi-serious, anyway.

You could say this was a case of ''and now for something completely different'', if not for the fact that Palin has had a novel published previously: Hemingway's Chair, the story of a shy Ernest Hemingway-obsessed postmaster fighting the privatisation of his village post office. That was in 1995, which means we've waited a long time for Palin's second foray into fiction, but here it is.

It is an ambitious title, The Truth. There had better be some in it, readers are entitled to demand, as they embark on the tale of fiftysomething Keith Mabbut, a once-idealistic environmental journalist who has sold out and now writes the official histories of oil terminals.

Down on his luck in love and work (his estranged wife is seeing a new, suave and successful man), Mabbut hopes to spend more time with his grown-up children and is about to embark on writing the great novel he has long planned when he is offered the job of a lifetime: writing the biography of reclusive environmental activist Hamish Melville.

A sort of Bob Brown crossed with Rutger Hauer, Melville roams the world saving remote tribes from corporations and - bizarrely, considering the good it would do - shuns all forms of publicity along the way.

Mabbut, despite his very ordinary track record, will be paid vast sums to produce this biography of the type of man he wishes he were. After overcoming an initial, somewhat unfeasible, reluctance to take on the brief, he quickly tracks down the supposedly elusive Melville in India, where the charismatic radical is helping a hill tribe fight the incursions of a mining company.

The story moves along lickety-split as Mabbut hops between India, England and the Czech Republic faster than a Palin DVD on fast forward. Along the way, he is captured by Maoists, gets to know Melville, writes his book and finally gets to the truth behind the real motives of people he has met along the way.

Palin has some history with the struggles of India's hill tribes, having travelled among them. In 2010, he sent a public message of support to the Dongria Kondh tribe, who were fighting the opening of a mine on their land.

Indeed, the scenes in India are probably the most memorable in the book; Palin obviously has an affinity for the place. Unfortunately, like the rest of The Truth, they suffer from thinly drawn characters.

The lead man, Mabbut, is a likeable, very English loser with good intentions, who, like most of us, does his best to get through life by walking a tightrope between principle and pragmatism. The rest of the cast are little more than caricatures. This doesn't help the reader accept a plot that, in parts, is about as plausible as a prone parrot pining for the fiords.

In his favour, Palin has the ability to keep the reader turning the page, which is a skill not to be sniffed at. And there is some truth in here. But just as in real life, it's hard to see for all the distractions.

This story The Truth first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.