Sections of Colm Toibin’s new novella, The Testament of Mary, were first performed as a one woman play in Dublin in 2011. Given it feels like an extended monologue this makes perfect sense and it is, indeed, a testament, an opportunity for Mary, (and, at last, for a woman), to bear witness to events in which she was so intimately involved, an opportunity so long denied her.
It starts wonderfully well, with Mary describing her suffocating life under a subtle form of house arrest orchestrated by two of her son’s followers, who are busy scribbling testaments of their own. Through a blend of condescension and menace, they attempt to coax her into verifying their version of ‘the truth,’ to which she responds with a meek and exasperating mutinousness. She loathed her son’s circle before his tragedy, and she loathes them even more now, they are “a group of misfits…. men without fathers, or men who could not look a woman in the eye...” She argues that “Not one of you was normal… if you put two of you together you will get not only foolishness and the usual cruelty but you will also get a desperate need for something else.” After this delightful stripping of the disciples down to size, the novella slumps a tad until the bacchanalian romp of the wedding at Cana and the disturbing aftermath of the meddling with Lazarus, who appears less than thrilled to have been yanked back into this mortal coil from the blessed relief of the eternal beyond. Then the novella enacts its foregone tragedy in flat, pedantic steps, as though Toibin’s aversion to sensationalism and sentimentality had throttled his capacity for risk, and I’m always disappointed when writers do what I expect. I wanted so much more here than – and I’m paraphrasing – I’m tired and I’m hungry and my feet hurt and I’m trying not to let anyone see me cry… Afterwards, thankfully, his narrative bite returns with the shocking (to some) denouement in Mary’s final bitter pages.
Many will disagree with me if I contend that the changes Toibin makes to the biblical version of Mary are not substantial enough, for certainly he crushes the images of the pliable dewy-eyed virgin or the pieta gazing complacently heavenward, the broken body of her son on her lap. Toibin’s Mary is a pragmatic wife and mother who loses both husband and son for reasons she refuses to condone as “worth it,” a woman all too human and therefore susceptible to the cruelties of tyranny and liable to forfeit love in the face of fear. Yet other fiction inspired by the gospels has managed to be more, dare I say it, entertaining and imaginative (and yes, controversial): for example, Jose Saramago’s portrayal of a worldly rebel peeved with his dad in The Gospel According to Jesus Christ, or Mikhail Bulgakov’s skewering of propaganda and religious orthodoxy in The Master and Margarita, or Nikos Kazantzakis’ movingly human portrayal in The Last Temptation of Christ. So I finished The Testament of Mary, feeling in awe of Toibin’s craft, yet unsatisfied, the same feeling I experienced after closing the pages of his Brooklyn. In Umberto Eco’s enjoyable medieval romp The Name of the Rose, a mystery surrounds a dangerous manuscript, blasphemous not because it questions Christ’s divinity but because it dares to suggest he had a sense of humor – wit and irony being weapons in the devil’s arsenal. No single human life, regardless of how much decency and reverence with which we handle it, is ever all tragedy or all comedy, but a variable seasoning of both. Could this be a clue to unravelling the strange case of Colm Toibin – a writer so talented, so articulate, so intelligent, yet, so….. so….straight? Could it be that he lacks the essential (and devilish) funny bone?