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Testament to a different Mary

2013 October 25

I was glad that Colm Tóibín did not win the Man Booker Prize. His Testament of Mary is a bold retelling of the life of Christ through the eyes of his mother. But, for all its imaginative power, it is in the end an arid and reductive attempt.

As I read it, I wondered had the author been to the small stone building hidden in a forest of long-needled pine trees high up the mountain overlooking the city of Ephesus – which is where the mother of Jesus reputedly retreated to spend the end of her life.  With its soft coniferous silence it is one of the most serene places I have ever visited. But, if he went, the Irish novelist clearly failed to be touched by that.

His book begins from interesting questions. Why does Mary speak so little in the New Testament? Why do the synoptic gospels not place her, stabat mater, at the foot of the cross as the evangelist John does? In answer Tóibín takes the docile dolorsa of Christian tradition and turns her into a real woman, consumed by a grief, both tender and furious, at the cruel death of her son.

In her Ephesus retreat his Mary is impatient with the two disciples who minister to her needs and, at the same time, try to draw from her suitable details to add to what will become John’s Gospel. The problem is that her memories are of a son full of contradictions which do not fit the disciple’s desire to “make connections, weave a pattern, a meaning into things”.

Colm Tóibín has a powerful creative imagination which is lyrical and yet bleak. His psychological insight offers telling details, like the way Jesus claps his second arm to his chest after the first has been nailed to the cross, or the way Mary became estranged from her son as he changed from a carpenter to a charismatic public figure. His Mary is uneasy at the hysteria which surrounds her son’s miracles. Tóibín has no evidence for this but then a novelist does not require evidence only a convincing poetic ingenuity.

Yet much of his invention does not convince. He plays interestingly with the idea that Lazurus, having passed through the doors of death, does not welcome his return to the pain of life. But there is something grotesquely comic about his zombie resuscitation.  Tóibín offers no scenes to support Mary’s contention that Christ’s disciples were a bunch of misfits – “fools, twitchers, malcontents, stammerers” – the kind of  men “who could not look a woman in the eye”. And he  moves the wedding at Cana to the end of Christ’s ministry and  inverts its meaning, to no obvious purpose.

Most perversely he has Mary run away from the foot of the cross before her son’s death, in fear for her own life. That is an enormous traducing of the courage of a woman forced to cradle in the death the body of the child she had held so tenderly at his  birth. He portrays the depth of Mary’s subsequent guilt with great intensity, but reduces her to not much more than inconsolable grief.

His motivation is hard to fathom.  He told the New York Times that he wrote the book, and an earlier stage version, out of anger at Roman Catholicism as Ireland’s paedophile priest scandal reached its height. But there is something almost adolescent about his gleeful judgement that he was “playing with fire” in the work which prompted rosary-chanting protestors outside its Broadway theatre with signs condemning it as blasphemy. “It hasn’t been controversial,” he told Reuters last week.  “It isn’t as though it’s been burned anywhere.” He sounded almost disappointed.

Had Mary really been as Colm Tóibín portrays her it is hard to think that 2,000 years later anyone would still be talking about her.


The Church Times


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