Tuesday, July 14, 2015

The Testament of Mary, by Colm Tóibín

I found this novel, short-listed for the Man Booker Prize in 2013, a troubling read, perhaps because
its author treated Mary not irreverently, perhaps, but certainly unsentimentally. I've no doubt the book sent the Catholic Church into fits.

After the terror of the crucifixion, Mary and John have fled to Ephesus, and others are coming now, too, wanting her testimony, which she is reluctant to give, and she's certainly not about to embroider the truth.

I like it that they feed me and pay for my clothes and protect me. And in return I will do for them what I can, but no more than that. Just as I cannot breathe the breath of another or help the heart of someone else to beat or their bones not to weaken or their flesh not to shrivel, I cannot say more than I can say. And I know how deeply this disturbs them and it would make me smile, this earnest need for foolish anecdotes or sharp, simple patterns in the story of what happened to us all, except that I have forgotten how to smile. I have no further need for smiling. Just as I had no further need for tears. There was a time when I thought that I had, in fact, no tears left, that I had used up my store of tears, but I am lucky that foolish thoughts like this never linger, are quickly replaced by what is true. There are always tears if you need them enough. It is the body that makes tears. I no longer need tears and that should be a relief, but I do not seek relief, merely solitude and some grim satisfaction which comes from the certainty that I will not say anything that is not true.
Tóibín's Mary is not the Virgin Mary, the Blessed Mother, the Saint. She is a woman in her late middle age, exiled and traumatised, bewildered by the persistence of the would-be evangelists. They're working to found a religion; she's trying to come to terms with her grief. Her own truth is that she had discouraged her son, belittled his followers, pleaded with him to return to a quiet life of carpentry and then watched it all go to hell when her headstrong young son ignored his mother.
I have dreamed this. And there are times when I have let the dream into the day to live with me, when I have sat in that chair and felt that I was holding him, his body all cleansed of pain and myself cleansed too of the pain that I felt, which was part of his pain, the pain we shared. All of this is easy to imagine. It is what really happened that is unimaginable, and it is what really happened that I must face now in these months before I go into my grave or else everything that happened will become a sweet story that will grow poisonous as bright berries that hang low on trees. I do not know why it matters that I should tell the truth to myself at night, why it should matter that the truth should be spoken at least once in the world. Because the world is a place of silence, the sky at night when the birds have gone is a vast silent place. No words will make the slightest difference to the sky at night.
What happened was unimaginable. The question is, did it indeed "become a sweet story that [grew] poisonous as bright berries that hang low on trees"?

If the term hagiography refers to writing the lives of saints, The Testament of Mary is its antonym, and neither form strikes me as reliable. Surely there are spiritual (as opposed to religious) truths somewhere in the middle.