This isn’t your mother’s Mother Mary. Forget the Annunciation or the Virgin Birth. The only Assumption here is that Mary is a troubled woman, haunted by Golgotha, hunted by assassins, waiting for death.
Colm Toibin has stepped into the lives of historical figures before with spectacular success. The Irish writer’s most celebrated novel, “The Master,” recreated Henry James in a wry imitation of James’s own style. But that was a literary transformation of studied subtlety. Now that Toibin has moved on to a Master even more revered, he’s tearing out rooms and replacing the furniture. Anyone familiar with the Gospels will find this novella a foreign, unsettling place.
“The Testament of Mary” was originally presented as a monologue, first performed last year in Dublin, and the story still shows the imprint of that form: It’s dramatic and poetic rather than analytical and expansive. And it’s not so much a testament of faith as a confession of guilt. There is no Pieta in these pages, except as a mournful dream. Spooked by the guards, this Mary abandoned her suffering son on the cross and took off to save her own skin. Latter-day efforts by Paul & Co. to transfigure his death into something divinely necessary strike her as obscene.
The scene opens on Mary near the end of life. She’s in a sparse room in the city of Ephesus, speaking to us quietly but urgently. “I do not seek relief,” Mary says, “merely solitude and some grim satisfaction which comes from the certainty that I will not say anything that is not true.”
Her insistence on the truth becomes the book’s central concern and flavors this moving drama with an acrid polemic taste. The Gospel writers caring for Mary (or keeping her locked up) have “outstayed their welcome” while interrogating her about what happened to her son. “Words matter,” she whispers to us, but she knows these pious scribes aren’t after the facts. One of her minders, she complains, “is ready to scowl impatiently when the story I tell him does not stretch to whatever limits he has ordained.” She’s determined to articulate the real history, “or else everything that happened will become a sweet story that will grow poisonous as bright berries that hang low on trees.”
If you’d enjoy a tale predicated on the idea that Christian faith is a toxic collection of “foolish anecdotes” based on a “fierce catastrophe,” Merry Christmas!
There was a time when a book like this wouldn’t have had a holy ghost of a chance of getting published. But “The Testament of Mary” hasn’t sparked outrage or boycotts — a reassuring testament to the West’s tolerance for such artistic license and Toibin’s prominence. Some of us are a lot calmer nowadays about creative re-imaginings of sacred figures. Nearly 25 years ago, protesters picketed movie theatres showing Martin Scorsese’s “The Last Temptation of Christ.” But Philip Pullman’s taunting little novel “The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ” barely rippled the waters in 2010. Evangelicals in this country may finally have caught on to the fact that fiery condemnation plays right into the marketing plans of books that would otherwise ascend into oblivion. How “The Testament of Mary” performs is difficult to predict. It’s been widely praised in England, but Toibin is a larger presence there, and churchgoing isn’t.
His novella presents the mother of Jesus smoldering in anger and bitterness, more Medea than Madonna. “I have been made wild by what I saw,” she says. “I have been unhinged.” At one point, she threatens the Gospel writers with a knife. She describes living as a bandit in the terrifying years after the Crucifixion, stealing what she needed to survive and running from her son’s enemies. It’s all intensely conveyed — you can almost hear what a great actress might do with this passionate material.
Some of the most arresting segments cross the Gospel narratives in provocative ways. Devoid of any inspirational motive, Mary’s descriptions of long-hallowed events are jarring, inserting psychological details into the Gospels’ lacunae. Toibin isn’t so much interested in denying the miraculous as he is in placing that question in the background to focus, instead, on Jesus’ disruptive presence, the political and social chaos he fomented. Those dangers — not the fruitless debates about his miracles — are what worry a mother.
In Toibin’s telling, the crippled man at the pool of Bethesda isn’t a story of spiritual healing but an example of the risks Jesus took by provoking his enemies, “creating a frenzy on the Sabbath.” Mary couldn’t care less whether “this idiot, half beggar, half imbecile” was really healed or not; she’s only concerned about her son. She feels the disorienting alarm of a parent watching her child grow into a reckless adult she can’t recognize. The people who follow him — “fools, twitchers, malcontents, stammerers” — find his words exciting, but to her, his voice sounds “false, and his tone all stilted, and I could not bear to hear him, it was like something grinding and it set my teeth on edge.”
Other Gospel stories endure more radical revision, even as Toibin sometimes quotes famous lines from the Bible, its antique diction clashing weirdly with Toibin’s modern prose. Rather than a foreshadowing of the Resurrection, for instance, the raising of Lazarus becomes a ghoulish horror story. “No one should tamper with the fullness that is death,” Mary warns, as she describes a dazed man brought back from the grave only to lie in his darkened room, moaning and disoriented, a fright to everyone.
But even while attending to the alleged distortions of the Gospels, Toibin makes little effort to establish any kind of historical accuracy himself. Few of these scenes is graced with enough description to give us a full picture of the place or the time. His Mary rarely sounds like a poor 1st-century woman in the Roman Empire. She speaks in the lovely, super-literary phrases of a feminist who confidently rejects faith in Yahweh (or her son) in favor of a very hip paganism that the modern literati can sanction.
There’s a powerful, devastating story here about a mother angry at her son’s disregard for his own safety and even more disgusted at his friends’ determination to pretend that their ideals are more important than his life. Regardless of its religious drapery, her agony has a universal relevance. After all, brash young men are snuffed out and then glorified in propaganda during every generation’s wars. Good mothers know they’re expected to sanction that celebration. But some Christians may justifiably feel assailed by this book’s resounding claim that the central event of their faith was, in Mary words, “not worth it.”
Charles is The Washington Post’s fiction editor. You can follow him on Twitter @RonCharles.
At 7 p.m., Tuesday, Nov. 13, Colm Toibin will be at the Politics & Prose Bookstore, 5015 Connecticut Ave. NW. 202-364-1919.
THE TESTAMENT OF MARY
By Colm Toibin
Scribner. 81 pp. $19.99