The Testament of Gideon Mack by James Robertson: Crossing paths with the Devil

April 17, 2014 | No Comments

Standing stones punctuate the Scottish landscape, ancient markers of a centuries-old metaphysical debate. While taking a customary cross-country run in January 2003 the Reverend Gideon Mack, a Church of Scotland minister, finds a standing stone where no stone had been before, a stone that nobody else can see. Later that year, he claims to have met the Devil after spending three days trapped at the bottom of a Highland ravine. By the following January he has disappeared, leaving behind a memoir—to which a Scottish publisher adds a prologue and an epilogue. When the Reverend’s body is finally found on the slopes of the remote and dismal Ben Alder, it transpires he had hoped to meet an acquaintance there, his ‘familiar’ so to speak, like a dark twist on the rendezvous of Davie Balfour and Alan Breck in Sir Walter Scott’s Kidnapped.

The structure of The Testament of Gideon Mack, James Robertson’s marvelously eerie novel from 2007, is, of course, a deliberate echo of that touchstone text of Scottish literature, James Hogg’s The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner (1824). A former farm laborer and shepherd, Hogg was influenced by German Romanticism (by the works of Goethe and Hoffman), and by William Godwin, the radical English novelist and philosopher. Received with some mild hostility and a lot of indifference on its publication, Hogg’s novel is now recognized as a masterpiece of the gothic and doppelgänger literary traditions, on a par with works by Dostoevsky, Poe, Gogol and Bulgakov. But nowhere has its influence been more profound than on its home turf; Robertson is the latest in a long line of Scottish novelists who have pushed their protagonists across the Devil’s path, including Robert Louis Stevenson (The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, 1886), JM Barrie (Farewell Miss Julie Logan, 1932), and Muriel Spark (The Ballad of Peckham Rye, 1960)—admittedly Spark set her novel in England, but she did do us the dubious honor of making her Devil a Scot. All of which begs the question: are you more likely to meet Auld Nick in Scotland than anywhere else?

Robertson’s book met neither hostility nor indifference (it was long-listed for the Man Booker Prize), but neither did it gain the widespread recognition it deserves. His subsequent novels, And The Land Lay Still (2010), a political and social critique of Scottish identity in the second half of the twentieth century, and The Professor of Truth (2012) about the Lockerbie bombing, confirm his status as one of the most ambitious and exciting English language writers working today, and he deserves to be better known outside of Scotland. “I didn’t set out to deliberately follow the Gothic tradition,” he said in an interview with the Guardian about Gideon Mack, “but there is no question that some of that Hogg and Stevenson stuff does speak to me in a weird way. I am interested in how the past continues to influence the present and how the present changes the way we think about the past.” Robertson deftly riddles Mack’s testimony and character with inconsistencies, ensuring his fictional publisher and we, his actual readers, swither between perceiving the memoir as a factual account of an unsettling paranormal event or the hallucinations of a grief-stricken man undergoing a crisis of faith.

Auld Nick, Sandy, Sim, Bobbie, Auld Sootie, Clootie, Ruffie, the Deil, the Foul Thief, the Earl o’ Hell, the Auld Smith, the Auld Ane, the Wee Man, Auld Mishanter, Auld Mahoun, are just some of the names Scots have given the Devil, but Robertson chose Gil Martin, in direct homage to Hogg. Gil Martin considers himself redundant; even without his meddling the world is going to hell in a handcart. He feels sorry for God, too. “It must be like running the National Health Service,” he tells Mack, “when nobody believes in it anymore.”

Mack follows his father’s footsteps into the ministry, and his father is a man who exhibits an unyielding, profound faith despite having witnessed atrocities while serving as an army chaplain in the Second World War: “For him, without God there was nothing but carnage. It wasn’t that God had absented himself, or was responsible for the mess human beings had made: for my father, God was the only redemption.” But Mack doesn’t, and never has, believed in God; he justifies the hypocrisy of his vocation by trying to spend his life helping others, conveniently interpreting ‘charity’ in the modern sense, rather than in the biblical: which is to love as God loves. This devil’s bargain, his failure to love, has dreadful consequences. “Love,” Mack believes, “is not in us from the beginning, like an instinct: love is no more original to human beings than sin. Like sin, it must be learned.” He is a well-intentioned but thrawn man—thrawn meaning to be perverse, twisted, or stubborn—a cultural quirk Robertson toys with over and over in his novels, a characteristic which makes the outcome of the upcoming referendum on Scottish independence so unpredictable. Robertson knows we Scots are experts at contrariness, especially when our backs are against the wall or we feel slighted—we can, and often do, cut off our noses to spite our face.

Mack’s friends and the tabloid press greet his claims of having met the Devil with ridicule. But it is his peers in the Kirk who condemn him above all; blithe to any glaring contradiction, they continue to direct the worship of the supernatural while accusing one of their own of blasphemy because he professes to have actually witnessed it. To them and to many folk in Scotland (as to many folk elsewhere), their religion is akin to Pascal’s wager, a matter of insurance not faith. But “you can’t pick and choose what you want to believe,” says Mack, and through Mack, Robertson argues (as did Hogg, Stevenson, Barrie and Spark before him), that the Devil is necessary to God: indeed the Devil is God’s familiar, throwing his light into relief.” And I do like Scotland,” Robertson’s Devil admits: “I like the miserable weather. I like the miserable people, the fatalism, the negativity, the violence that’s always just below the surface. And I like the way you deal with religion. One century you’re up to your lugs in it, the next you’re trading the whole apparatus in for Sunday superstores. Praise the Lord and thrash the bairns. Oh, yes, this is a fine country.”

Farmers in Scotland are prohibited from removing standing stones from their fields by both conservation laws and ingrained superstition. So they ignore them, daily swerving around these ancient question marks. Mack’s tragedy is that he persists in drawing attention, drawing attention to the inconvenient truth that we still don’t know. We would rather he didn’t remind us that perhaps it is not our mortality we fear, but the possibility of our immortality.

I don’t believe the Devil is less likely to turn up at a Target in Baltimore than on a beach in Arbroath (putting aside the undeniable fact that my home-country is dour and other-wordly, which might be why Michael Faber’s novel—and subsequent movie—Under Her Skin is set there), it is simply that Scots can’t shake the habit of keeping an eye out for signs of anyone whose “middle nature,” to quote Sir Walter Scott, “is betwixt man and angel.” We’ve yet to uncouple heaven from hell, select the good bits and ditch the rest. To paraphrase one of Robertson’s characters, Scots believe in the dead. We believe in history. When Mack asks his mother why his father never liked Americans, she replies, “because they showed their feelings too much,” and Mack’s father was a man terrified, above all, of his own feelings. Mack presses her further to talk about her marriage, but she shrugs and says, “Your father and I were suited… It simply isn’t important.” Centuries of inculcation in the supernatural—in fairies and elves and witches and doppelgängers—overlaid and perverted by the stern dictates of Calvinism make us envious of the sheer American gumption which enshrined happiness in the Constitution, nevertheless we continue to suspect (like Mack’s mother) that as far as life is concerned, happiness might be beside the point.

I’m currently working on a novel and when people ask what it is about I say good and evil plus death—though mortality / immortality would do just as well—and they always look a bit miffed. But really, what other subjects are there? I left Scotland over twenty-seven years ago having not yet crossed paths with the Devil, but if I were to return I am convinced that I would. It would only be a matter of time.