Book Review: The Testament of Gideon Mack

I picked this up for the first time a few weeks ago, alongside a hardback copy of James Robertson‘s new work, To Be Continued…

There’s probably not a lot else to be said about this book that hasn’t been said in the ten years since its original publication. Nevertheless, I am pleased to note that it has, in the meantime, taken its place on the school curriculum, for it has a lot to offer in the sense not only of its essential themes (including the nature of belief in a scientific rational age; and about father-son, and indeed familial, relationships) but also in terms of what it says about the varied reliability of witnesses. In this sense, it is a potentially valuable text for young students charged with evaluating the evidence of the  numerous actors in Mack’s story and of their varying motivations.

The Testament of Gideon Mack remains a compelling, fascinating work; brilliantly set-up and organised by Robertson (the ‘testament’, apparently in Gideon Mack’s own hand, is handed to a (fictional) publisher who is initially not quite sure what to do with it and who then, having explained to the reader his decision to publish the work, does so alongside publishing the results of some original research undertaken apparently to test some aspects of the veracity of the tale). The result of this set-up is that there is little in the testament itself which comes as a surprise – the basic facts of the story, and all the substantial plot developments, are all explained in the first few pages of prologue by the publisher. Behold: the Revd. Gideon Mack, Church of Scotland minister in the small north-east coastal town of Monimaskit, but who is actually an agnostic, has an encounter following a fall (actual as well as in the spiritual sense) with a person who he believes to be the devil. Mack, who appears to be a deeply religious man despite his lack of faith, now has the evidence he requires that at least the devil – if not God – exists; but his flock, when he emerges (in an again symbolic three days later), cannot believe his various proofs, thinking instead that a combination of personal circumstances had caused him to run off the rails. When Mack continues to assert his desire to tell what he sees as the truth, official proceedings are started against him, but Mack conjures up his own disappearance only to turn up, dead, some months later.

Ultimately, it is an open question as to whether we believe Mack’s proofs or think him, in his context, a madman, under the influence of drink and/or drugs, a false witness or even a/the devil (all possibilities clearly outlined by Robertson in the course of Mack’s testament). Mack himself observes as such and, in this sense, those who are religious will need to find their own balance between the different scales of faith in their god and any proof they require. The reaction of Mack’s congregation to the testament of their minister is indicative that what amounts to proof for one person is, to another, evidence only of someone needing some form of professional assistance. Here, one person’s search for proof is, to others, likely to prove a waste of time: belief will be, Robertson seems to be saying, always and only a matter for the individual conscience.

We may, alternatively, come to a different impression as regards which of the actors in Mack’s tale, either directly or those involved in bringing the tale to us, we choose to believe.

Given the set-up for the book, what matters most is thus not the facts of the story, the details of the encounter with the devil or the development of the plot (although this contains some hidden surprises, too) but how we get there (and, indeed, how we weight the carefully-expressed evidence of the various actors). Robertson writes with sharp observation about Mack’s childhood growing up in a manse; while his descriptive work around the geography, and seasonal weather, of Monimaskit (a website which amounts to a terrific bit of side promotion by Robertson himself, as well as bringing more witnesses to the scene) conveys great beauty as well as bringing home to us the hard reality of the tale. When Mack goes out running, or in the lead up to his fall, we feel the weather with him, the cold frost, the rain and wind, and the smells and sounds of the forest in which he runs. We experience what Mack experiences and that makes all of us equally a part of his story: we are all actors, and witnesses, in it.

Further, I also enjoyed the reference to not trusting skating ministers (at the time of Robertson’s writing,  and subsequently, a contemporary debate), while the devil’s brief, cynical observations about his affections for Scotland and its people (p. 283 in the current Penguin edition) are amusing and likely to cause a few sharp intakes.

Overall, a well-crafted and brilliantly-written tale by an author who knows how to spin a yarn.

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