Acclaimed Irish writer Colm Tόibín has penned a strangely compelling tale, full of terror, heartbreak, and finally a tone of resignation and even depression.
The Testament of Mary by Colm Tόibín. Scribner, 81 pages, $19.95.
By David Mehegan.
Colm Tόibín (I think it’s pronounced To-BEAN) is a writer who seems to be able to write almost anything with fluency: novels (seven), short stories, nonfiction and journalism, criticism, plays. One would not think it possible to write a convincing, first-person novel about Henry James, but in The Master, Tόibín succeeded. In The Testament of Mary, he has wrought something unusual: an 81-page novella in the voice of the mother of Jesus in her old age. It is a strangely compelling tale, full of terror, heartbreak, and finally a tone of resignation and even depression.
There is something about the Christian gospels that artists of all kinds find impossible to leave alone. Consider the painters, from Caravaggio’s Beheading of John the Baptist to Rembrandt’s Rest on the Flight Into Egypt (to say nothing of irreverent modern treatments), compelled further to articulate the narrative, to hammer it like a goldsmith or, like a photographer in the darkroom (dating myself here), to bring out finer details on paper in the developer. The slow and fateful arc of the Jesus story is gripping and, while it is written in the simplest language imaginable, the narrative remains profoundly repelling and mysterious. I don’t mean repellent (though some aspects, such as the massacre of the innocents, or the passion, do repel). Rather, I mean that one’s craving to understand this bizarre story sooner or later bounces off the steel armor of the minimal extant witnesses. By “witnesses” I mean the known documents.
Some aspects of the story (such as the timing of the trial before the Sanhedrin or the “census of the whole world” ordered by Caesar Augustus in Luke 2:1) are undermined by other reliable historical sources. Some are internally contradicted, such as the accounts of the words of the others crucified with Jesus. Most frustrating to those who long, for various reasons, to know what really happened, what must have happened, the story is like a 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle with 250 pieces randomly lost. Or like a lurid dream, if not always a nightmare, with smoky, shifting scenes and colors and voices in a kind of textual surround sound. Often the reader—with or without religious faith—is left with the thought, “I understand what you’re saying, but I don’t get it.” We suspect this or that account can’t be right, or wholly right, and imaginative writers throughout history such as Tόibín have jumped into the story—become its coauthor—to supply coherence by their own lights. Tόibín does supply coherence, to a point.
Parts of The Testament of Mary were used in the making of Tόibín’s 2011 play, The Testament, staged in Dublin. The book was originally published in the U.K. earlier this year. That means that he started the novella first, then turned to write a script for the stage, and finally finished and published the book. That suggests that play and novel influenced one another. The publisher tells us as well that the character of Mary is “a lifelong passion” of the writer (an odd choice of word, given the dramatic topic), though we do not know how or why. If this book is an indicator, he does not hold with traditional Marian devotion, with its barely restrained inclination toward quasi-deification. His Mary, who in this book threatens to knife anyone who sits in her late husband’s chair, is far from the image of one immaculately conceived (that is, free of original sin) and bodily assumed into heaven at her death. No, she is a canny widow stuck in a story of which she never did and does not now have control.
Mary is an old woman (how old we don’t know) living in the city of Ephesus in the Roman province of Asia, near what is now the town of Selcuk in western Turkey. She lives alone, supported by two men who come to plumb her memory about her son and about what happened to and through him. She is the narrator and relates her understanding of the miracles of the raising of Lazarus and the wedding feast at Cana, at which water is said to be turned into wine. She watches and describes the crucifixion, after which she is spirited away to Ephesus.
Mary is a cool skeptic, who has seen, loved, and endured much but for whom passion of all kinds is far in the past. She is a shrewd and wary, not noticeably pious, Jewish woman. She likes to visit the Temple of Artemis in Ephesus and even buys “a small statue of the goddess who lifted my spirits. . . . I could whisper to it in the night if I needed to.” (There is a historic temple of Artemis in the ruins of Ephesus, as well as a “House of the Virgin Mary,” where legend says she spent her last days in the care of the Apostle John. It has been visited in recent times by two popes.)
Neither Mary’s nor her son’s names are mentioned in the book nor are those of any of the disciples except for Lazarus and his sisters Martha and Mary. A central character, not found in the gospels, is a once-trusted but cruelly disloyal family friend named Marcus. Mary does not believe her son was a god and has a dim view of the motley misfits who hung about him. Her own behavior at the foot of the cross is not consonant with the traditional view of her. There is no Pietá here. She is willing enough to have the two unnamed disciples look after her needs now, but it is clear that she either withholds from them some of what she remembers or cannot tell them what they long to hear. She reports with indifference their frustration.
That wariness, that resistance, puts a certain pressure on the conceit of this book. It is called a testament, and yet it is clear that one thing Mary is not interested in doing is testifying, bearing witness. She lost her son to a horrible, tortuous death, and all the theological formulations of others before, during, and after the cruel fact are matters of no concern to her. She seems not to be writing, or even speaking, but rather musing about what happened, going over it all in her mind as she waits for a natural death. Her testimony comes to us through the agency of the author, who inserts himself into her mind and speaks her thoughts to us. Nothing wrong with that; the gospel texts themselves are dazzling works of art from human hands, however their authors and editors believed them to represent historical truth. They are, like Tόibín’s book, filled with statements about mental states and motivations, to say nothing of the actions of Satan and other evil spirits, which no earthly witness could have known.
Mary’s account of things she saw strike us as plausible, or at least possible. The death and raising of Lazarus is reported as seen by others, and we do not know if she believes it. She does witness his misery and groaning after the event, as if he now had unspeakable knowledge and might be better off dead. She is present at Cana, and we are left with the impression that the water-into-wine miracle might have been a hoax carefully staged by persons unknown for unclear reasons. I must say, however, that I found her coolness and surprising actions at Golgotha hard to relate to the mental state of any suffering mother I’ve ever known.
One thing such dramatizations of the gospel story tend to do is take an incredible story and make it less so; they never make it more so. The modern mind is not much interested in the theological underpinnings of historic events. It wants to reduce the saga to the verifiable historical facts, like the historians who try to retrace the voyage of Odysseus and explain exactly who the Lotus-eaters were. They’re not much interested in the Cyclops or the monsters Charybdis and Scylla. In the hands of a modern writer, there is no Great Bear in the night sky but a bunch of unrelated stars. The gospels themselves began that process, by locating the events in the life of Jesus in the Roman Empire at a particular time, peopled with such historical persons as Pontius Pilate, Herod the Great, and Caiphas the high priest. The gospel writers claim that these things happened just as they are written, that they are not fairy tales or the dreams of the deluded. In so doing, they invite the scrutiny of the curious and the reflective, such as Colm Tόibín. As for Mary, the gospels make her out to be a simple, Jewish girl who went along with what was asked of her—not so very different and no less plain than the Mary of this story.
However, there is a sense in which Tόibín’s characterization is no more believable than the original. For one thing, for a simple country woman, this Mary is remarkably eloquent and intellectual. At night en route to Cana, she recalls, “I wandered out under the sky which was lit with stars and I believed for a moment that soon these stars would cease to glitter, that the nights of the future would be dark beyond dark, that the world itself would undergo a great change, and then I quickly came to see that the change would happen only to me and to the few who knew me; it would be only us who would look at the sky at night in the future and see the darkness before we saw the glitter. We would see the glittering stars as false and mocking, or as bewildered themselves by the night as we were, as left-over things confined to their place, their shining nothing more than a sort of pleading.” To me such a train of thought in Mary is no more believable than the poetry of the Magnificat.
In the end, I found The Testament of Mary to be a thin meal as fiction. She is the only real character in it. Dialogue is minimal. The book consists mostly of this deeply tired voice. It is possible that it worked better on stage, wrought by a gifted actress, and that the novella is the lesser work.
When the modern mind grapples with these narratives and characters, it naturally tends to jump backward over the intervening history—over Talmud, one might say, directly to Torah. It wants to scrape away all the encrustations of history and the questionable motivations of those who since then have wanted to own and fashion truth and meaning. In Tόibín’s version, Mary herself takes a dismissive view of those first tellers who pester her for anecdotes. In that jump, something is surely gained but something is also lost. What if we were to burn all of Caravaggio and raze the cathedrals of Europe to get back to the rude Palestinian facts of the founding of Christianity? Or toss the gospels in favor of an Associated Press version? No thanks. The recovered pentimento, however interesting, is seldom an improvement.
David Mehegan is a contributing writer.