Sunday, October 20, 2013

The Testament of Mary

The Testament of Mary
By Colm Tóibín

The Man Booker Prize was awarded to Eleanor Catton for her novel her novel The Luminaries (Congrats Ms. Catton). At 28 years old, Catton becomes the youngest winner of the Booker Prize. But that is not the only superlative we can superimpose one this year's crop of nominees for (arguably) literature's most prestigious award. Colm Tóibín's 81 page novel The Testament of Mary is the shortest book to ever be shortlisted (or even long listed for that matter). It barely qualifies as a novel. I've read novellas longer that The Testament of Mary. But what it lacks in density, it more than makes up for in controversy. Not only due to it's subject matter, but also due to the delivery of the narrative.

The controversy involved in Tóibín's novel is twofold. First, any novel written from the historical perspective of a contemporary of Jesus of Nazareth is contentious by nature among those who will take issue with the way in which Jesus and other Bible personages are characterized. There are always going to be those who will take issue with elements of Biblical accuracy. Of more interest, though, is the literary controversy The Testament of Mary has generated, particularly the unconventional way in which Mary has been characterized. 

The Testament of Mary is a first person account of the life of Jesus as told by his mother, many years after the crucifixion. Mary has been kept protected (hidden) by the disciples and is tended to by several watchers at Ephesus in Asia Minor. The disciples themselves often visit to gather stories from Mary, but only those that fit their particular needs. It is at this point, in her extreme old age, that Mary feels compelled to disclose the truth of her son's life as she recalls it. I suppose her motivation is the direction in which the disciples are steering the ship: toward a division with the Jewish tradition and the founding of a new religion.

What Mary recounts is a far more ephemeral account of the life of Jesus. His miracles as witnessed by his mother are open to critical interpretation and his death and resurrection are recalled in far more corporeal tones. In fact, Mary seems to be confounded by the cult of personality that spouts up around her son and professes to not understanding much of what his followers are saying. This, of course, implies that Mary was never a follower of her son. But Tóibín takes it one step further and hints at a possible reversion to paganism in her old age, a rather confounding notion, to say the least.

Mary is characterized as both brutally honest and absolutely sure about the events that lead up to the arrest and death of her son, but at the same time rather confused about the events that transpired in the days and years that followed the crucifixion. Her voice is lucid and exacting and her attention to the details surrounding both the wedding at Cana and the resurrection of Lazarus are vividly fascinating. But when it comes to the politicking of her son's life and martyrdom, Mary seems utterly confounded. 

Surely one can excuse the bereaved for not entirely understand what is going on in the wake of death, but Mary's complete ignorance concerning the machinations of the disciples in  the aftermath of the crucifixion is inexcusable and a real fault in Tóibín's characterization. Mary seems oblivious to the fact that she is being used by the embryonic Christian Church to further their political cause within the Empire.

Which leads me to wonder what is purpose of this little novel. Surely it's not an examination of Mary as a literary heroine. We learn very little about her throughout the novel. In fact this novel has very little to do with Mary other than the fact that she is the voice in which it flyers through. And surely it's not simply to suggest that Jesus was not, in fact, the son of God. That theme has been done to death in longer and far more insightful novel than this one. So if The Testament of Mary isn't about Mary and isn't about Jesus (in the historical sense) than what is it about?

My best guess is that Tóibín is investigating the nature of truth. The story of Jesus is one narrative that tends to get a free pass on revisionism. Through Mary, we throw the entire Jesus story through the first person wringer, allowing the writer to take license with virtually every detail of the story they see fit to alter. Here Tóibín chooses to reduce Christ to the status of man retrofitted as a godhead. Further to that point, it would seem that Colm Tóibín is examining the politics of myth-making and how an agenda trumps truth when the chips are on the proverbial table. Mary is simply a puppet to be manipulated when the need arises. A tool to be kept alive but also carefully choreographed.

But if that's the case, if Toibin's over-arching purpose was to somehow point out that the Bible is either patently untrue or (at the very least) decidedly unreliable, then this novel seems rather like flogging a dead horse. Only the most fervent zealots believe that the Bible is the literal word of God rather than a flawed and contradictory text written by hundreds of people over thousands of years. If pointing this out was Toibin's intent it's sort of like spending a pleasant afternoon proving that the sky is blue to a group of people, a small percentage of whom are color-blind.

To be honest, I'm not entirely sure how I feel about this novel. In the spirit of this blog, I wrote this immediately after finishing the book. But this is the sort of novel that will take days or weeks to sort out. I need to mull over the more intricate nuances of this tight little narrative. I know the novel is flawed, but I'm trying to decide whether or not it is intentionally flawed in order to make a point about the nature of truth, or critically flawed because Colm Tóibín is simply mean-spirited.

Has anyone else read this book yet? I'd be curious to know what you took away from it. 


Anonymous said...

Will be reading it soon, for a Novellas in November blog event. It's probably the most famous novella to come out this year so I may start with it, even though biblical retelling aren't usually my thing.

Brian Joseph said...

The subject matter is so very interesting but based upon your commentary the executions seems very disappointing. Too bad, I have heard that the battle over whether to stay with Jewish tradition verses start something new that everyone could join was theologically contentious after the events of the Gospels.

I must say that I know a few folks that while they do not take the entire Bible literally, take the Gospels as mostly true. Perhaps this is aimed at them.

Sharon Henning said...

Speaking as one of the marginalized zealots that believe the Bible is the inerrant word of God, I don't see anything particularly original about this book. And if the issue is so dead (i.e. that the Bible is contradictory, inaccurate et al.) why do so many books keep cropping up to "prove" its inaccuracy.

People accuse the Bible being written by people with ulterior motifs, yet every writer of the New Testament was killed for their belief-with the exception of John who died in exile on the island of Patmos.

I think it is an easy matter to create a fictional account of Biblical characters and have them say what you want them to to prove your point. Toibin isn't the first to do this.

Historically speaking, Luke got most of his information for his Gospel from Mary's account.

Andi said...

Ahh, I look forward to trying to sort this one for myself. Great reaction to it here!

Brona Joy said...

I read (and enjoyed in a WTF was that about way) Coetzee's Childhood of Jesus earlier in the year and have had this one in my sights since then. Great review.

Lauren Monsey Nagel said...

I was just checking with you to see how you are doing? What are you up to these days as I have not seen you on here.

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