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Colm Toibin’s The Testament of Mary.

I have been a fan of the writer, Colm Toibin for some years now; his novels, journalism, and essays delight and inspire.

Colm Toibin

Colm Toibin’s new novel, Nora Webster, comes out in October. His previous piece is a very short (96 pages) work called The Testament of Mary which made the short-list of last year’s Man-Booker Prize (his second nomination). My review appeared in Anne Summers Reports, Number 4 in September 2013. I include it below in anticipation of the release of Nora Webster, which, no doubt I’ll be telling you about in due course.

On Colm Toibin’s website, http://www.colmtoibin.com/, you will find a sample. His short story House for Sale, http://www.colmtoibin.com/content/house-sale, is an excerpt from, or perhaps an experiment for, the work that has become Nora Webster.

More importantly, I urge you all to subscribe to Anne Summers Reports – it’s free!

It’s a magazine that counters the common trend for today’s journalists to force on us their opinions: ASR doesn’t opine, it is “Sane / Factual / Relevant” and presents politics, culture, and society in an entertaining and forthright manner produced by a clever and passionate team.

Here’s the link, http://annesummers.com.au/asr/

 The Testament of Mary

Cólm Tóibín, Scribner, New York, 2012, 96 pp.

“History will judge us kindly,” Churchill told Roosevelt and Stalin in 1943, “because I shall write it.”

Nothing much had changed, apparently, since the death of Christ. That is exactly the attitude the gospel writers had: the story was for them to tell, in a manner and level of truthfulness of their choosing. We can augur that that may not have been their intention but they believed they were instructed to tell The Story, to spread the word; it was their duty to save people from their own beliefs.

This idea is paramount in Cólm Tóibín’s latest book, The Testament of Mary. Mary’s house, where she lived out her last years, many believe, is in modern-day Turkey, near Ephesus.

Mary's House Ephesus

It is a simple and single-roomed stone dwelling surrounded by olive trees obviously tended to religiously over the years, but its solidness and forthright aura matches exactly the character of the woman at the heart of Tóibín’s text. She is old, knows death is soon upon her, but stoic in her defiance of the two gospel writers who warily tend to her needs.

They feed and protect her but want her to say what she cannot: “I cannot say more than I can say”. And she smiles as she knows that this disturbs them. They want “foolish anecdotes or sharp, simple patterns of what happened to us”. She is dependent on the men and resolute in her refusal “to say anything that is not true”.

One of the men, who used to comfort her, is ready now “to scowl impatiently when the story I tell him does not stretch to whatever limits he has ordained”. What strikes the reader about the opening, the set-up, of Tóibín’s story is its two-pronged relevance to the intellectual life of today’s world: its attitude to the church, and its attitude towards women.

It is hard to ignore the anti-church sentiment behind Tóibín’s text. If the religion is the retelling of the story, tenuous over the centuries that may be, it is the marketing of the retelling that is the reason for the men who hover around Mary. They torment Mary in her final years by wanting stories from her lips that they can use to enrich such marketing. This is what the church does: it markets the story.

The novella is an internal monologue and it’s easy to picture Mary on her stone stoop watching the two men tend to her, with their ulterior motives, while she thinks these thoughts.

What Tóibín does is put a vibrant worry-worm, a woman, both terrified and terrifying, into the foundation of the Church. These two men of the Church want her to tell them stories, to tell them miracles and “to stretch the limits” to meet their demands. What they fear is her refusal to give them stories they can use, for it is miracles they need.

So they feed and protect her, waiting for her to change her mind. The men write their story nevertheless, writing “things that neither he nor I saw” and “I know that he has given shape to what I went through and he witnessed, and that he has made sure that these words will matter, that they will be listened to”. They are writers, and good ones.

With the current problems the church is facing it is easy to see where Tóibín is going. Over the centuries the church has developed dogma to aid its cause, such as the development and the inclusion into doctrine of the Holy Spirit, which began one hundred years after the death of Christ.

But after 2000 years, how far has the church veered from the truth as Tóibín’s Mary saw it?

She was there, on the hill that day amid the male-instigated violence, the waiting, the blood-letting and the boredom, surrounded by cruel life and lingering death, afraid but also revered by those men who “could not look a woman in the eye”. She was, after all, the mother.

Mary, in Tóibín’s monologue, tells of a man with an eagle in a cage and a bag of rabbits that the man eagerly feeds one by one to the caged bird, who eats just little bits of each because it isn’t really hungry, but what else is a bird of prey to do when prey is thrust beneath its beak? This is what she saw that day, but it is not what the two gospel writers want to hear. They cannot use this story, it doesn’t advance their cause.

Mary’s retelling of the Wedding at Cana, of the raising of Lazarus, words and miracles; some she witnessed, most she heard second-, third-hand. But then she sees him … she meets his gaze as he lumbers with his cross on the way to the Hill, and it is as an infant that she remembers him. The thought as she nursed him was that here was someone who will look after her when she is old, who will tend to her ailing body and then her grave. No mother dreams of seeing her child die, nor of watching nails the length of her hand being thudded through his flesh and bone into the raw wood beneath. But she was a small woman and standing in a crowd only gave her limited view of what was going on. She relied on what others told her, and what others, via others, said, like his followers through the ages.

The first theatrical production of this text at the Dublin Theatre Festival in 2011 caused no great ripples in the local Christian community, but this revised and expanded version is harsh on the church. Mary sees it in its infancy: followers all behaved as if this was planned, part of a great deliverance… And within this group of men (fools, twitchers, malcontents, stammerers) there was a set of hierarchies, men who spoke and were listened to, or whose presence created silence, or who sat at the top of the table, who demanded food from the women who scampered in and out like hunched and obedient animals.

Tóibín prepared a longer revision for the Broadway production which opened in April 2013 with Fiona Shaw as Mary.

Poster for the Broadway production 2013

Poster for the Broadway production 2013

To read Tóibín’s version of the crucifixion, Mary’s escape and the resurrection through her eyes, ears and dreams is to understand what a writer can do; it is to appreciate the power of the word on a page. Mary’s minders know this too. Tóibín has told a story set in the first century but it’s really about us now. It’ll be on the fiction shelves in your local bookshop but, like all fiction, it’s about truth, not of plot, but of ideas.

The same production was presented at the Barbican in London in May 2014.

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