Colm Tóibín, The Testament of Mary

From this weekend’s column.

 

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Before the announcement of this year’s Booker prize, many of those who had actually read the whole of the shortlist seemed to think the real race was between its longest and the shortest works; Eleanor Catton’s eight-hundred-plus-page The Luminaries, and Colm Tóibín’s The Testament of Mary, less than a hundred pages long. Both sprawling-and-ambitious and precise-and-compact strike me as healthy things for a novel to be (though with deadlines looming I’d prefer more of the latter) and I’m looking forward to Catton’s now award-winning novel. But this week I only felt capable of tackling the Tóibín.

“I cannot say the name, it will not come, something will break in me if I say the name. So we call him ‘him’, ‘my son’, ‘our son’, ‘the one who was here’, ‘your friend’, ‘the one you are interested in’. Maybe before I die I will say the name or manage on one of those nights to whisper it but I do not think so.”

Religious retellings can be (also) religious or secular—they can embrace the divine or supernatural nature of their subject, or they can create a more material logic for their worlds. Tóibín’s Mary never says the word “Jesus”, and in some ways this could be any crucified son, and any mother (lots of women are called Mary, surely) who believes in the end that whatever great cause her son died for cannot have been worth it. Despite this we’re never really in any doubt of who these characters are—if Mary’s son and the two men who haunt her home after his death are not named, Lazarus is, his sisters Mary and Martha are, familiar miracles are described, even if most of them are witnessed second-hand.  If the stories that Mary hears are true, obviously, this can’t be just any story of a dead son and a grieving mother.

But while Mary occasionally seems skeptical about her son’s great deeds, what is far more striking to me is that neither she nor the book seem particularly invested in their veracity. This is not an account of the life of Jesus that attempts to explain away the supernatural, then, but nor is it one in which the divine is centred. Even as her son’s disciples attempt to narrativise his life story, and to absorb Mary into it, she resists by writing back with a story of which she and her grief are the focus. “In the way they work now”, she says, “they try to make connections, weave a pattern, a meaning into things”. Mary disrupts that meaning, refuses to allow herself to be used, makes of her life something too messy and multifaceted for them. At one point we’re shown an empty chair that is waiting for “someone who will not return”; Mary’s “protectors” (and possibly the reader) assume this is a reference to her son, before we’re forced to remember that she has been a wife as well as a mother.

Christ’s divinity (if that is what it is) then fades into the background in the face of Mary’s humanity. And she is at her human best when she departs from the perfect symbol—when she thinks of her self-preservation during the death of her son and marvels at herself for doing so, when she feels the creeping dread of passing time after each Sabbath, when she hides in the house as her neighbours (a shared female community that is one of the things I like most about Tóibín’s book) lie to visitors and tell them she has left. When she finds time at her son’s crucifixion to notice other awful things happening around her, as if the most important event in the book’s world (but not her book’s world) were not taking place right there in front of her.

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