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.
Perhaps the most striking part of the book is about the raising of Lazarus. After he is disinterred, following four days of being buried, he is detached, unable to eat, unwilling to speak and clearly dying. He moans at night. He has seen something dreadful in the afterlife: “If he had come back to life, it was merely to say a last farewell to it.” He stumbles with his sisters to the celebration of the marriage of Cana. People are afraid of him and avoid him. Jesus is acclaimed for turning water into wine, but no one actually sees the miracle taking place; the transformation occurs in sealed jugs.
There is a bizarre excitement in the air. No one seems to be working. Women suddenly are talking as much as men. And some people, like the Magdalene, believe the end days are imminent: “Mary argued that something new would happen . . . these days would be the last days and the days of the beginning.” Mary, our Mary, notices that everyone is talking about the future, not as a probable occurrence two years from now, say, but as the arrival of a whole new epoch, “some time to come in which all would be different and all would be better”.
The Testament of Mary is the severe reimagining of an old woman’s pain as she is supervised by cold zealots who want her to concur with their account. It is part of a long tradition of rational explanations of Jesus as the Messiah. Ernst Renan, the Frenchman who wrote La Vie de Jésus, rather mildly tries to give a “scientific” basis to all the miracles; in this regard he was influenced by two German scholars, Johann Herder and David Strauss, of the 19th century. George Eliot translated Strauss’s Life of Jesus. Robert Graves published his King Jesus in 1946. Dozens of titles could be cited.
Tóibín, like many Irish writers, has long been fascinated by Catholicism. He has written a study of the church in modern Europe, and in Brooklyn he looks at an Irish girl who comes to the United States under the auspices of a parish priest in the middle of the 20th century. He has also written a story of child abuse in a Catholic school. His approach to religion is never snide or debunking. He is a great novelist because he knows how to dramatise complexity. In The Master he never was reductive about Henry James’s sexuality. In the same spirit in the eloquent The Testament of Mary he maintains all the dignity of Mary without subscribing to the myths that have accumulated around her.
Edmund White is one of the United States’ leading prose writers. His novels include A Boy’s Own Story, The Beautiful Room Is Empty, The Farewell Symphony, The Married Man and, most recently, Jack Holmes and His Friend. His nonfiction books include My Lives, Marcel Proust: A Life and Sacred Monsters.