The best truths are sometimes found when you walk alone, unsullied by other opinions. I was surprised by how slim a volume this was. The Testament of Mary by Colm Tóibín is all of a hundred-and-four pages and sized small. Without reading any book reviews so easily obtainable I fell into it. A perfect size and light of weight in my smallish oldish hands and solid in its hard covers. After all some book reviews go almost as long as one hundred and four pages it seems. My only early reservation was the somewhat religious title.
I might upset some J.M. Coetzee experts by saying this. The Testament of Mary is the absent but imagined core in the riddle that is The Childhood of Jesus which I argue was part of Coetzee’s unseen intent. What did that book say that was not said. Many have struggled with that question. Quite a few reviewers have got it wrong. And this is the answer. Not that this takes away anything from Coetzee’s book which I prize very highly. Hewn in crystal clear spare language Tóibín’s pen is given over to Mary, mother of Jesus, to speak her truth, unjudged, while striving to make sense of The Childhood of Jesus. My theory and my humble-pie opinion, of course.
Mary, from the Virgin on the Rocks to the Pieta is a historical/mythological icon on whom has been projected, some may argue, idealized sexist and burdensome roles for women. Mother, virgin, mother of God. And of course that tall order that is the immaculate conception. A standard that many women are held to and who pay for not trying. Virgin of the assumption, Our Lady of the Lourdes blue and white plastic bottle with holy water in it. All defined for Mary by a male biblical patriarchy.
In The Testament Mary is a wise straight talking woman of measured precise speech who unfurls all of the ballyhoo about the Virgin Mary. Speaking for herself with authority and clarity and sometimes even with self-interest. Sacrifice is the concept least sung about and I submit this is a good thing.
This book is a rejection of what has been imposed on women through the concoction that is the mother of god. And it is done beautifully and sparsely and so movingly and most of all without risking charges of sacrilege. At least in my opinion. Remember the Satanic Verses?
When we meet her Mary is essentially alone and separated from Jesus though it is difficult to tell if it is before the cross or after. She speaks often from rooms of her own with long distance echoes of Woolf. The rooms, though not always of her choosing in which she is often alone shorn of women’s work that is the lot of many a woman with family around her especially in Mary’s day. When she does take on those tasks, either alone or around others, they turn into cameos of sorts. The rooms are sparse, the garden, the animals, the day to day tending to, the drawing of water, so simple and clearly wrought. The room and Mary’s solitude and its stillness in her escape from the world are beautifully drawn and illuminated as if in a Vermeer painting. That is how the writing registers on the heart. Ironically almost like a prayer and a blessing though it was not prayers I was looking for. I never do. Sometimes the thought of a cloistered nun jars the mind but Mary takes care of it in her articulations and assertions, banishing the concept.
Bad things happen to most people. When really really bad things happen, as inevitably they tend to for a lot of us only the one who suffers knows its lonely horror, its isolating gravity, and its deep devastating betrayal. No one else does. As was the case with Mary, the mother of Jesus.
“Each of the nails was longer than my hand.”
As you read and go into the book the time-lines are ambivalent. It is unclear if it is before or after the crucifixion until you are well into the book. The references to other persons such as Miriam, Mary, Marcus are entirely removed of religious or pious references. They become day to day humdrum individuals with their own personalities and narratives clearly drawn through their actions as seen by Jesus’s mother. These personalities heighten Mary’s clarity of thought and perceptions as to what is happening around her and to her and to Jesus. Almost as if they are filters and sometimes mirrors. And Mary’s clarity of thought is stunning. A lesson in itself.
Mary is so utterly no-nonsense that she is a virtual myth buster. Her version of events as to how Jesus turns water into wine puts some doubt on whether it really happened or if it was a set up. Sometimes the reader is made to wonder if Jesus was the first celebrity and the crucifixion the first mob justice. At times one wonders if she will take us to an entirely unknown alternate but entirely credible narrative as to what really happened to her son and to her. One almost waits for it. But just when you expect it to take some unknown twist or turn Tóibín tames the reader’s imagination and takes the reins again.
What you read is literally Jesus’s mother talking to you. She is nothing like the idealized or sorrowful statues you’ve seen made of plaster of Paris or those you see inside churches looking tragic and melodramatic. There is no melodrama here. No Paris and certainly no plaster. Nor is Mary anything like the plastic bottles in which Lourdes holy water is sold. The woman you meet here is spare, strong and no-nonsense. Of spartan yet deep deep un-gratuitous unadorned emotion. Mary relates clearly what happened to her and to her son though not exactly as we have been told about until now. The writing absent of filigree and uncrowded, perfectly paced yet authoritatively resonant with beautiful jewel-like clarity. As if written in light sometimes. A counterpoint to the mumbo jumbo bible thumping that the church often spews and hides behind in cryptic church jargon. And sometimes the lines hit your whole being like emotional grenades that explode suddenly in sentences that turn up unexpectedly. One stops, sometimes to let the tears that well in your eyes dry out; or on at least one occasion in this writer’s case to sit and sob uncontrollably.
In the latter parts of this sparse work of breathtaking clarity the pieta appears in your mind as a shadow or even a dream of sorts; assuming one is familiar with it. And Mary testifies as to what really happened. It is the grenades that hit you from time to time like the hammering of nails on the cross against all resistance from your own body and being that makes your heart burst like bombs and then weigh your heart down like the heaviest of rocks till you pick yourself up again and continue. Because continue you must.
“The world is a place of silence, the sky at night when the birds are gone is a vast silent place. No words will make the slightest difference to the sky at night.”
This is the silence of the sky that always bears witness to the great losses of humanity and of horrors visited on humanity by humans, especially by those in power and then the mob is always there like the Greek Chorus to applaud. The populace is complicit. And at the end of the book there is a sort of a return to a prayer for the world; almost a moment of light of what is important when she goes back in time when they were a family and she recalls the Sabbath days when prayers were for:
“… justice to the weak and the orphan, maintain the right of the lowly and the destitute, rescue the needy, deliver them from the hands of the wicked.”
A drink of sweet water drawn out from deep in Mary’s memory after the horror, mostly the gaping loss of losing her son. A manifesto.
There is also a scene where she almost comes to dealing with those who talk about how she conceived her son – the immaculate conception – but somehow Tóibín does not take us there. Instead what is left unsaid is that Mary is portrayed so clearly as a no-nonsense sensible woman that even the idea of a Virgin birth is an absurdity. You can see it in her insurmountable and silent wall of rage that Tóibín uses as markers throughout the book. Except in some of the crucial scenes where she is placed in situations where she has no agency, Mary asserts herself and affirms what really happened. The true story. Where she clearly has no agency Mary is usually seen as an observer. Equally potent. Never a bystander. Mary is also capable of potential for violence if needed to assert herself. Another revelation.
And in the telling the book testifies to the worst aspects of humanity. The mob. Untold violence. Cruelty. Bloodlust. Cold hard dehumanizing officialdom as it runs its course unstoppable. Certain aspects of the telling is almost a metaphorical trial where everything is set up. There is no justice and justice is a lie. The only justice is in its appearance as if it were dispensing justice. Not much unlike how the law is to some today and has always been.
This should be on every mother’s bed side table in hard cover, if not every woman’s. As if it were a prayer book. (No I have no bible nor any prayer books near where I sleep.) And one must read it as habit at least once a month when the full moon is out and when we are a little crazy. It is so short. A lesson spoken by the mother of Jesus about sensibility, the big lie that is justice, and the truth we must find in our own hearts unsullied by the illusions and agendas of others. And the eternal truth that is suffering and its sad dignity. I know I overused the word spare. But it is spareness and sparseness that illuminates with such clarity and sometimes breathtaking beauty; making your heart stop in clear reasoned wonder. Far better than madness.
A book like no other. Sacred. A watershed for me and perhaps for the world.
A short postscript. Given these times. I once knew someone who, when he got angry, grabbed a hold of my hands and then twisted them till my wrists hurt so much that I had to scream. This happens to a lot of women. As a family lawyer this method often came up as part of women’s narratives. After decades one forgets these things. But for many years the phantom pain used to haunt me. But not any longer. I am not sure if it is a good or a bad thing. Time does heal memory’s horror. But on reading this they now hurt again. And may be it is a good reminder of the horror of the world. And the freeing purity and sanctity of one’s own knowledge.
Renuka Mendis, Toronto
November 13, 2014