The Testament Of Mary
By Colm Tóibín
96 pages, $23
By Michael D. Langan
NEWS BOOK REVIEWER
This novella should more aptly be titled “Colm Tóibín’s Testament Of Mary.”
Creative writers do what they do, they create; and that’s what Irish novelist Tóibín has done in his ugly transformation of Mary. His revisionist Mary may appeal to his naturalist sensibilities. His portrayal, however, does not comport with the vision of the woman millions have known and loved since biblical times.
Tóibín has remade Mary into a cold, grudging older woman, living alone in Ephesus long after her son Jesus has been crucified – and after she herself left the foot of the cross before Jesus died to save herself from an assassin that Tóibín invents. “I did it to save myself,” Mary says.
Tóibín’s Mary is glad for being fed and sheltered by those who are writing the Gospels and who are looking unsuccessfully for witness from her. She does not share what Christians hold to be true: that Jesus, her son, is the Son of God and that he sacrificed his life for humanity.
Tóibín’s Mary cannot even bring herself to utter Jesus’ name. Instead she calls him “my son” saying that “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.”
This Mary is angry with the apostles, whom she calls “misfits,” men who could not look a woman in the eye; men who were seen smiling to themselves, or who had grown old while they were still young, she thinks.
How unlike her son, Tóibín’s Mary thinks. He could have done anything, she reflects, been quiet even. He “… could look at a woman as though she were his equal, and he was grateful, good-mannered, intelligent.”
This Mary couldn’t stand the young men who came to her house seeking her son. “They were often silent at first, uneasy, needy, and the talk was too loud … even worse, when my son would insist on silence and begin to address them as though they were a crowd, his voice all false, and his tone all stilted, and I could not bear to hear him …”
Tóibín’s Mary loved the Sabbath. She says “I loved watching my husband and my son walking together to the Temple, and I loved waiting behind to pray before setting out to the Temple alone, not speaking, looking at no one.”
The stories of the wedding feast at Cana and the raising of Lazarus are retold. Tóibín’s Mary has no interest in the wedding, but instead is interested in getting her son back home before he is arrested by authorities for being a nuisance.
About Lazarus’ death, Mary feels “that no one should tamper with the fullness that is death. Death needs time and silence,” she says. “The dead must be left alone with their new gift or their new freedom from affliction.” But Jesus disturbs death. He causes Lazarus to rise, “unchanged by death.”
Later at the Cana festivities, Mary sees that Lazarus was changing, observing, “And Lazarus, it was clear to me, was dying. If he had come back to life, it was merely to say a last farewell to it. He recognized none of us, barely appeared able to lift a glass of water to his lips …” There was something supremely alone about him, Mary thinks, as if he had tasted something or seen or heard something that had filled him with the purest pain … frightening him beyond belief.
At Cana, this Mary is unsuccessful in getting Jesus to come home and to go into hiding. She observes that at the wedding Jesus “was wearing rich clothes and he was moving as though the clothes belonged to him as a right … . His tunic was made of a material I had never seen before …”
She rose to tell Jesus that he was in great danger, but he rebuked her, saying, “Woman, what have I to do with thee?” to which Mary replies, “I am your mother.” Then she heard him saying that he was the Son of God.
Tóibín’s Mary remarks that Jesus’ strange power “… made me love him and seek to protect him even more than I did when he had no power. It was not that I saw through it or did not believe it. It was not that I saw him still as a child … I saw something that seemed to have no history and to have come from nowhere … and I felt an abiding love for it.”
As Jesus’ end draws near, Marcus, seemingly a family friend, comes to Mary to tell her that a decision has been reached to deal with the situation. “He is to be crucified,” he says. Marcus tells Mary to leave Jerusalem immediately as his followers will be rounded up.
“I am not one of his followers,” Mary says. But among the sisters whom she visits, Martha and Mary, there is a note of hope. Mary, sister of Martha, tells Jesus’ mother that the crucifixion of her son will be “the beginning of a new life for the world.”
Jesus’ crucifixion is described in bloody detail, upsetting even at this distance in time.
After the crucifixion and in hiding, Mary, sister of Martha, and Mary, mother of Jesus, have a joint dream, if there can be such a thing, Tóibín relates.
They both dreamt of the risen Jesus “… in which he moved his hands and then his arms … He seemed to have neither pain nor memory of what he had been through. But the marks were there on his body. We did not speak to him. We simply held him and he seemed to be alive.”
Colm Tóibín takes familiar biblical stories and twists them. Tóibín’s Mary “… lives in a haze of waiting, trying still not to think or remember.”
For believers, Tóibín’s Mary, fine writing notwithstanding, denies the “great yes” for the world that Mary accepted at the Annunciation, the woman William Wordsworth referred to as, “Our tainted nature’s solitary boast.”
Michael D. Langan is a former vice president of Canisius College and headmaster of Nardin Academy.