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January 02, 2013

The Testament of Mary

by Colm Tóibín

Well, I'm off to a right start, discussing both politics and religion in the first week or so of blogging the Notable project here on the blog. It's another sticky subject; bear with me, I'm most definitely not trying to offend.

I've been really interested in Colm Tóibín since his brilliant "The Master," an imagining of the interior life of Henry James, an immensely satisfying read (and a cause for sending several of James's novels to my kindle). I've also enjoyed his "Brooklyn" and "Homage to Catalonia," which I read this past year remembering my own trip there a couple of years ago. But I was surprised to find an Irishman writing what is bound to be seen as something heretical by the Church -- but then, of course, Toibin is no longer a member of the Catholic Church.

The Testament of Mary is something akin to a Gospel, although obviously an imagined one, and is narrated from a short time after Jesus' death; it has an immediacy that the four Gospels in the New Testament lacks, and is additionally from the perspective of Jesus' mother (not Mary Magdalene).

Tóibín chooses to elongate certain passages and dramatically shorten others; he seems to be attempting to remind us that history¹ has a way of enlarging certain events while compressing others. In particular, he strains for a kind of realism of what Mary must have been feeling shortly after her son's death, and what emphases she would place on the events she witnessed close to it.

It begins in a way reminiscent of the story of Penelope after the presumed loss at sea of Odysseus, with Mary watched over by disciples of her son and essentially confined to her house, and Tóibín manages a neat and nearly undetectable trick when her narrative casts back to events starting from the raising of Lazarus. What stands out here is how she sees her son as her son, and not as the leader and historical and religious figure we of course now see him as -- and Tóibín's choices throughout suggest how small events might have grown into bigger ones and how bigger moments are somewhat abstracted in the Bible. For example, the Station of the Cross involving Jesus meeting Mary is merely a glance between them, whereas she recounts in dire detail the Crucifixion itself.

Certainly one can see things here that would rile followers of the Church; Tóibín is writing from his own beliefs of what may have happened, and with some historical justification to it. It's an imaginative work of the complexity of the relationship of a mother with a son who has drawn a large following without being overtly sentimental. Well worth reading.

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¹I'll take the Gospels as history of a sort, though not entirely contemporaneous with Jesus -- if I recall my own reading, the Gospel of Mark is earliest and the others follow after him, mostly written in the late first century and early second century. I'm an ex-Catholic myself, so much of this is down to memory.

Posted by Brett Douville at January 2, 2013 09:39 AM