A Different Mary: An essay on the novel The Testament of Mary by Colm Toibin

by Niranjan Casie Chitty

The Testament of Mary
by Colm Toibin
Paperback, February 4, 2014, 96 pages, ISBN-13: 978-1451692389

She is old, grieving and alone. Her only visitors are two of her son’s followers who, in exchange for a meager allowance for her upkeep, insist on her version of the events that led to her son’s execution on a cross. She turns her wound into a statement but the air is fraught because her version does not cohere with their expectations.

What are we to make of her, this Mary? Not, according to Toibin, what we imagine we know of her, or at least what history and myth may have us believe. Within the pages of this novel there is a peeling back of myth to reveal a woman like any other, mourning the death of her son and in fear for her own life. It is a fall from myth into flesh, fear, frailty and even shame.

Familiarity, oddly enough, is all too often an obstacle to historical understanding. The more we think we know about a period or person the more preconceptions and certainty we possess. Toibin reinvents the past to engage with the versions we are familiar with, to examine the detail of our knowledge. From this version we get the sense that in the process of mythologizing her we may have, unsympathetically, lost sight of the fact that she was a mortal. The intent is not to discover a historical truth, or even depict a plausible alternative, but to convey the fragility of our own certainties – about anything. There are large gaps in the extant record, gaps that the imagination can fill. In the novel the resurrected Lazarus is not quite alive: one of the fictive Walking Dead. As Mary observes, “And Lazarus, it was clear to me, was dying. If he had come back to life it was merely to say a last farewell to it. He recognized none of us, barely appeared able to lift his glass of water to his lips…” In the gaps in the record, Toibin seems to say, is embedded the potential for the rupture of history, and the possibility of truth or something that resembles it. Our understanding of the past and even the present is haunted by what is left out. “The constructed nature of our knowledge,” Foucault will add.

Toibin himself is a Catholic by alignment and not by belief. In an essay titled Putting Religion in Its Place published in the London Review of Books he says, “Since, unlike God, I know nothing much, and don’t generally read science or philosophy, and, unlike Calvin, don’t know how God feels, and generally haven’t really a clue what to believe, I have no problem with any of the above beliefs. They might make more sense, indeed, than believing, for example, that nuclear power is safe, or that the United Kingdom shouldn’t be split up, or that putting people in prison is a way to prevent crime.” So, he is not bent on making a scandalous name for himself by being controversial but rather, for him, an Irishman, religion is an integral part of his reality. “Also, people around me genuinely believe that, at the saying of some words by a priest, the wafer and the wine literally and actually become the body and blood of a man who was, it seems, crucified in the Middle East two thousand years ago…They believe in eternal life too.”

It is a poignant portrayal of what patriarchy could do to a woman who is bereaved of the male members of her family. Even in happier times there is the sense she is in a spatial and spiritual prison: confined to the house, defined by convention and tradition. Yet, her husband cared for her and she was content. The gradual descent into desolation begins at his death.

Her life is scripted and what is most important is that she conforms to her social identity. She dutifully observed the Sabbath with a delicate awareness of her role as a woman. Now as an old woman living – and dying – alone, in a land she is not native to, she yearns for that time when she, her husband and young son kept those observances. Her social identity is what defines her: a woman, a Jew, and later, a widow and so on. Later, she will become surrounded by the radiance of myth, something divine. Today, because these things precede her we know who she has become but not who she was. Is it possible to know who she was as an individual or will we always be thwarted by her public identity? The novel does not attempt to resolve the question of who she was but makes a suggestion of who she may have been. With a verve expected of a writer of Toibin’s abilities the narration is filtered through the consciousness of his protagonist. He picks up the rhythm of her thoughts and emotions and manages the reader’s attention expertly. We are always noticing what Mary notices, her thoughts and opinions. As important, and what adds to the completeness of her character, is that we do not notice what she does not. Then when the reader ponders what it is she is not noticing something like a truth emerges.

There is one thing in particular she can hardly allow herself to remember. It is possibly the main reason she is reluctant to recount what transpired during her son’s execution. While her son hangs from a cross in unspeakable agony she, in grave danger herself, flees with his followers. Even if this was factual, and not a figment of Toibin’s imagination, it has to be recognized that almost no human is equipped to deal with intensities of the kind she faced. Though others do not judge her it is apparent she is prone to judge herself. With tact and delicacy she does her utmost to scuttle her memory of that day, to keep her actions a secret from herself.

The reader will immediately recognize the tone of sadness and fear that permeates the text. But there is a niggling sense that there is something missing, of something not being said. It is only after the narrative has advanced a long way, to its end almost, that what is withheld becomes clear: guilt and shame. It is not withheld deliberately from the reader, rather it is something she is hiding from herself with poignant delicacy and tact. Finally, in an uncontrolled gush: “It is only now that I can admit this, only now that I can allow myself to say it. For years I have comforted myself with the thought of how long I remained there, how much I suffered then. But I must say it once, I must let the words out…when the possibility of being dragged away and choked arose, my first instinct was to flee and it was also my last instinct.” At this point the careful reader is rewarded if he begins once more at the beginning, noting how shame – though not yet admitted to anyone, especially herself – shapes the narrative, her outlook and what she does and does not do. It may, for instance, inform our understanding of her hostility toward the two followers who insist that she retell her experiences of that day. They are linked to her sense of shame about herself.

Her community had not much use for men of her son’s sort – that is, men who did not take easily to anonymity and the comfort of conformity. Such men, when alive were usually driven out and when dead, if famous, were welcomed back. Even she does not approve of what she sees as her son’s self-dramatization, his thirst for a bigger stage. “‘Woman what have I to do with thee?’ he asked, and then again louder so that it was heard again all around. ‘Woman what have I to do with thee?’”

“‘I am your mother,’ I said. But by this time he had begun to talk to others, high flown talk and riddles, using strange proud terms to describe himself and his task in the world.” Mother and son seem to encounter each other across a vast social and ideological distance.

In the end the two followers – claiming her endorsement – leave with a version tailored to their project: the Good News. Their tenacity makes it impossible for her to escape the legend. “They are not fools. I admire how deliberate they are, how exact their plans, how dedicated they are…” The Good News that, to begin, needed some very bad news.

About the author: Essayist Niranjan Casie Chitty lives in Sri Lanka. An extract of his first novel, which is currently in progress, was shortlisted for the Charles Pick South East Asian Fellowship (offered by the University of East Anglia) and was among the shortlist for finalists at the William Faulkner-William Wisdom competition (2012) in the Novel in Progress category. His work has been published in literary journals and newspapers in Sri Lanka.