The Testament of Mary
By Colm Tóibín, Viking, 112pp. £12.99
FICTION:THIS IS A SHORT BOOK, but it is as dense as a diamond. It is as tragic as a Spanish pieta, but it is completely heretical.
The Virgin Mary, who is not a Christian, is trying to set the record straight about her son as she recalls things many years later in Ephesus, where she was “translated” not by a miracle but by a boat.
“It was when they came to the last part that I stood up from the chair and moved away from them.
“ ‘He died to redeem the world,’ the other man said. ‘His death has freed mankind from darkness and from sin. His father sent him into the world that he might suffer on the cross.’ ‘His father?’ I asked. ‘His father . . . ?’ ‘His suffering was necessary,’ he interrupted, ‘it was how mankind would be saved.’ ‘Saved?’ I asked and raised my voice. ‘Who has been saved?’ ‘Those who came before him and those who live now and those who are not yet born’ ‘Saved from death?’ I asked.
“ ‘Saved for eternal life,’ he said. ‘Everyone in the world will know eternal life.’ ‘Oh, eternal life!’ I replied. ‘Oh, everyone in the world.’ ” Her son’s disciples are divided among the crazies and the homeless who are ready to follow any leader and those who are her guardians, grim professionals of the new order, men for whom there is “no grief, no sorrow, no fuss, something cold, as though life is a business to be managed, that our time on earth requires planning and regulation and careful foresight.” They sound a bit like young communist zealots before the war.
She realises that these “businessmen” have worked out a careful version of the Gospels, but she is trying to record the truth. There was no pieta; to her eternal regret she fled before her son was dead in order to save her own skin. She was not there for the resurrection; she dreamed she and Mary Magdalene were seated beside an artesian well. They both, curiously, dreamed that.
The Crucifixion itself is described in gory, convincing detail worthy of Mel Gibson. How the nails were driven into one hand and he tried to save the other hand by holding it to his side. How his words could not be heard because of the general uproar.
How a man beside the Cross was quite independently feeding live rabbits to a rapacious caged eagle.
The text is written in a neutral, timeless English with no contractions on the one hand and no archaicisms on the other. It is always grand in its sobriety; occasionally it becomes lyrical: “In the same way Lazarus had a glow of death about him, almost like a garb that covered every aspect of his being and that no one could penetrate, so too with my son there was a sense of the fluster of life, the bright sky on a windy day, or the trees when they were filled with ripe, unharvested fruit, a sense of an unthinking energy, like bounty.” But such flights are all the more remarkable because normally Tóibín keeps a tight rein on those impulses.