Tóibín’s Booker-listed novel throws down a gauntlet to our method of reasoning

Opinion: We have ceased to treat seriously the great questions of existence

I believe it important that Colm Tóibín wins the Man Booker Prize next Wednesday for his novella The Testament of Mary. I don't just mean "important for Colm Tóibín", although he certainly deserves it, having featured as Booker bridesmaid several times. I don't mean "important for Irish literature", being unsure there is such a thing any more. I mean important for Ireland and Irish culture, because if it wins, we may be unable to continue ignoring, as we have done, what the book demands we address.

The Testament of Mary is a sensational book on several levels – although it's impossible to partition and deal with under different headings. As pure literature, if such a category can be identified, it is sublime, bringing Tóibín's capacity for deceptive understatement to a subject that finally matches its potential.

Tóibín is essentially a reporter, in that he always addresses the world of fact. Many years ago, he wrote brilliantly for In Dublin and Magill, and several of his non-fiction books, especially The Sign of the Cross: Travels in Catholic Europe, are beautiful achievements.

He writes in a beguiling mixture of prose and poetry – several crisp and unadorned sentences interrupted unexpectedly by an image or construction that is strange and almost incongruous and seems to erupt gratuitously from nowhere. His words drop disruptingly into the reader’s internal sediment of the mysterious, deposited deep inside by a lifetime’s bumping into and then evading the great questions, which remain dormant with the potential to be vivified by the right combinations of words.

There is no sense in Tóibín’s fiction of a line being crossed into fantasy. Here, he writes also of “facts”, conveying the same solidity and gravity. The lives of his fictional characters do not exist for their own sake, but as a witness to reality as it actually is.

Cultural gravity
This is what makes The Testament of Mary so bracingly real. It is, in effect, an anti-Gospel, treating of a story most of us have grown up with in a way that might be disturbing, shocking, even scandalous. I find myself flirting with the word "blasphemous", but with the sole intention of attracting attention to the gravity of the book for Irish culture and civilisation. Otherwise, such words are unhelpful.

The book depicts the Virgin Mary as an old woman unhappy, reflecting on the great event of her life. She is being visited by two of the evangelists, who want her to affirm a confabulation of the story of her son, who is never referred to in the book by His name. It seems clear she accepts little of what they seek to make of what happened 20 years before.

Tóibín has said that his interest was not in what people nowadays believe, but in the mind and heart of Mary at that moment. At this level the book is astonishingly engaging and powerful.

I read it only a couple of weeks ago, having carried it around to various countries for several months, strangely reluctant to open it. It’s not that I was afraid of being discommoded, but, from the various reviews and other media coverage, had gleaned some sense of something that would divide my loyalties between the “facts” as we have received them and the imaginative journey I anticipated the book would involve.

Earlier this year, Tóibín outlined his lack of (religious) belief to Gay Byrne on The Meaning of Life. Nevertheless, that interview also exhibited a remarkable sensitivity towards those who approach mystery through the medium of faith. One of the many striking aspects was the way Tóibín spoke of the space that exists in the human heart, to be filled by faith or nothing, and his sense of the appalling vista that nothingness represents.

Reading the book, I had no sense that it was any part of the author’s intention to give succour to current neo-atheistic inanity. I was intrigued and impressed by the devices – dreams and the skilful insinuation of the possibility of exaggeration arising from multiple tellings – Tóibín uses to rattle the Gospel’s version of Mary’s perspective.

The "challenge" which the book poses to "Irish society now" relates to any remaining capacity we may have to emerge from the bunker we have built for ourselves to inhabit and behold the world from. Our culture makes little attempt to reconcile the understandings that arise from this bunker with the great questions of existence, preferring to divide the questions – and the world – into categories headed, respectively, "faith" and "secular". Via a perhaps occasionally somewhat simple- and literal-minded history, we have arrived at a solution that resides in a strange form of double/triple/quadruple
-think. For many of those who don't believe, it's straightforward: they merely sneer and scoff from inside their positivistic bubbles. For believers, it's been a matter of privatising their beliefs, and behaving in everyday life as though the questions headed "God etc" could be moved, for public purposes, into a no-man's land between fact and fiction – not quite true in the way Love/Hate is true, but not ready to be jettisoned just yet.

The result has been a culture of lazy thinking, in which the great questions of existence are no longer treated seriously. The logic of the bunker leaves no words to speak of mystery. Lost entirely, at least at the public level, is the childlike idea that the most implausible thing of all is that any one of us is actually here, with a name, a face and a subjective viewpoint on reality.

This is why The Testament of Mary is such a bracing book. It throws down a gauntlet to the very method of our reasoning, and drops into a cultural moment when a sense of the strangeness of everyday reality has become lost to the extent that anything beyond the banal nowadays seems implausible. Reading the book, it's impossible to avoid its implicit question: is this true or not? Is there a way of thinking that enables me to emerge from this retelling of the Gospels and remain with what I believe?

Ultimately it poses a stark choice: join the ranks of the sceptics and naysayers or say why it is you remain able to believe.