Colm Tóibín The Testament of Mary

Colm Tóibín writes with a sparseness of style that leaves the impression that every word has been weighed. His novel Brooklyn tells us of a woman who escaped from small town Ireland to New York and those she left behind, and shows us the dilemmas, and the doubts of both those who leave and those who stay. This novel, The Testament of Mary, is also about escape, and the dilemmas of everyday life around the time of the crucifixion.

There are two aspects of this book, as there are in all, novels: the content (here the relationship between Mary and her son, Jesus) and the way the story is told, style, characterisation, voice, and so on, but we are more aware of this duality here than we often are. Is that a success or a defect? Most of the published reviews concentrate on the content, the retelling of the crucifixion. Well, that’s not surprising.

But for me what makes this novella a success is the characterisation of Mary as a woman at the end of her tether, full of anger at what she sees as the exploitation of her son by unscrupulous men, and their determination to teach her what she has to witness to. The characterisation of these men is good as well, and what is a stroke of genius, I think, is that the character of Jesus is left almost blank. He has the traditional lines: “Woman, what have I to do with thee?”, but that’s about it.

Tóibín is a writer of sparse sentences, but which are also lyrical. Especially over the raising of Lazarus there’s an amazing combination of words portraying the feeling that this is not something that should happen, death should not be tampered with, and, indeed, isn’t in the end. The cut-down sentences are there in all of his novels, especially in Brooklyn. There’s his comment, often quoted, that his writing comes out of silence. I’m not too sure what that means, although you do get the feeling, as with many novel writers who are not just good but inspired, of the words struggling to get out. I’m always amazed that he has such a deep understanding of Henry James, whose novels couldn’t be less like his. He wrote a wonderful novel, The Master, in which he explores the contrast between James’ fame as a writer, and his anguish at the inadequacy of his personal life.

The Christian story is very difficult for many people today. Many of us reject it, but at the same time we know, or we should know, how much we owe to it. Christianity has shaped Western European civilisation, and the church has formed society. Sometimes the church did terrible things, but on the whole the results were beneficial. Beliefs and behaviour developed in ways that the church may have resisted, but which sprang inevitably from a clearer understanding of the Christian story. The protestant reformation paved the way for the Age of Enlightenment and Humanism.

Toibin has enlightened for me several parts of the story. It’s all there in the wonderful prose of the King James version, and the language is so beautiful you don’t think about the meaning. The literal meaning is often a false friend.

This book is very much about the relationship between Mary and Jesus, from Mary’s point of view. Jesus is a distant, uninvolved character, and this heightens our understanding of what Mary feels. In the second chapter of the St John’s Gospel, in the King James version, we can read:

And the third day there was a marriage in Canaa of Gallilee; and the mother of Jesus was there;
And both Jesus was called, and his disciples, to the marriage.
And when they wanted wine, the mother of Jesus saith unto him, They have no wine.
Jesus saith unto her, Woman, what have I to do with thee? Mine hour is not yet come.

This is a very ambiguous statement. Do we understand what he meant? Taking it at its literal meaning, it’s a terrible thing for a woman to hear from her son.

In this book Tóibín strips away the accretion of myth and legend that surrounds the story of the crucifixion, to show us, from Mary’s point of view, a believable picture of what happened, how the disciples reinvented  the events. Even if this reinvention didn’t happen at the time, this is surely how it was, as the early Christian church set out their message over the next 200 years.

I found the retelling entirely believable: Mary’s distrust of the disciples, her awareness that they wanted a version of events that she knew wasn’t right, running away, fearful for her own safety.

For some readers the content of this book is blasphemous. For many readers the content will be consistent with what they believe: something happened, there was a teacher, a religious leader, who was killed in this barbaric way by the Romans who had to try to keep peace in this part of their empire. The teacher’s followers made up a story, probably not realising exactly what they were doing, and over the next two or three hundred years the story was developed further.

I hope this book has opened up new possibilities for the novel. The average novel these days is about 60,000 to 80,000 words, inexorably increasing in length from earlier days. There are many blockbusters that strain the arms and the endurance, approaching 100,000 and even longer. There was a debate about whether the Testament of Mary actually was a novel, on the grounds that it was too short, at about 29,000 words and 104 pages. But, as Edmund White wrote in the Irish Times, it is as dense as a diamond. It is complete. Long novels like Andrés Neuman’s Traveller of the Century` have their place, as does Jonathon Franzen’s Freedom (190,000 words), but I hope we shall have more writers embracing the shorter novel, like Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach, a miniature gem.

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