Colm Tóibín (2012) The Testament of Mary Viking, London; 112 pp.; ISBN 978-0-67092209-3
In this short novel, Colm Tóibín writes a narrative about events involving Jesus of Nazareth from the point of view of his mother Mary. When her testament is given, she is in old age and feels that death is not far away. She will be glad when it comes. Some of the events she recalls are recent, but most of them hark back to the final weeks of her son’s life, a son whom she still misses and whose suffering can never be erased from her mind.
Mary now lives in Ephesus. Her needs are taken care of, and her bills paid, by followers of her dead son. But her relationship with her keepers is neither a happy nor a comfortable one. These men, callow and cold, pester her with questions and ask her to tell all that she can remember. They are writing epistles that they believe will change the world, but Mary harbours doubts as to whether everything they write down is true.
She regrets that when her son still lived at home she did not pay more attention to the company he kept. Like many other young men locally, he left for the city and its promise of a better future, but the stories that eventually came back disturbed her and increasingly made her fearful. There were tales of miracles and insurrection, both threatening to upset the world that she knew. A childhood friend, Marcus of Cana, comes to visit and warns her that the actions of her son are endangering him, his followers and Mary herself.
Mary travels to a wedding in Cana to try and reason with her son, but what she finds is a man beyond recognition. This is nothing like the boy that she knew, the boy who walked off to the temple hand in hand with his father. That was a sight that still fills her with joy. Instead, the grown man is dressed in fine clothes, surrounded by sycophants and the slightly deranged, and calls himself the son of God. When she fails to connect with him she realises they are all doomed.
From that time, Mary has been watched. First by the spies and thugs of the Roman occupiers and their Jewish collaborators, then later by her son’s followers, lean and hungry men who are seeking to refine a neat story about her son and do not want any loose ends. None of these men have respected her or taken her side of the story seriously. They are all concerned with power and control. It is little wonder that apart from the two men who regularly push their way into her house nowadays she permits no man to cross her threshold. She has given up going to the synagogue and prefers the kindliness of the goddess Artemis. In her room she keeps a small statue of the goddess to comfort herself. The other memento she keeps is the chair of her late husband. As for her son, she never mentions his name let alone retains any relics of his life.
In the course of her testament Mary recalls in stark detail the final days and hours of her son’s life, the conspiracy manufactured against him and the conspiracy later manufactured in his name. There is a guilty secret at the heart of the crucifixion and it has haunted her to this day. This she must tell before death steals her away.
There are many stories of Jesus: those contained in the Christian Bible, the Islamic Koran and the apocryphal scriptures that were excluded from any holy book. In recent decades more ancient manuscripts with yet more stories have come to light. There are many inconsistencies and most of the stories were written long after the events being described.
Colm Tóibín is not adding yet another contender for the scriptures, but instead tells a story from the point of view of a mother wracked by guilt and grief. It is a tale that will resonate with anyone who knows the pull of family and the difficulties of coping with the dissonance between the children we knew and the often strange adults they become. Although this story is grounded in religions of the Middle East it is about emotions and relationships that are recognisably universal.
Tóibín is a wonderful writer and the restrained prose of this novella contains a depth of feeling that makes for a moving and sad tale. Mary is both an innocent victim of circumstances and a knowing critic of the predicament in which she lives. What did all that history mean? And in the end was it all worth something? As her life draws to a close she is adamant that her voice be heard.
Endnote: If you are interested in more of his work, I have previously reviewed Colm Tóibín’s The Empty Family.