November 2012

Arts & Letters

‘The Testament of Mary’ by Colm Tóibín

By Robyn Annear

Colm Tóibín’s last book was titled New Ways To Kill Your Mother. In The Testament of Mary he sticks to the old ways.

Mary of Nazareth bears witness, in this 100-page novella, to what befell her son. It’s a story that will ring familiar even to readers unacquainted with the New Testament. A charismatic young man attracts the wrong sort of company: “men without fathers, or men who could not look a woman in the eye”, men with “a desperate need for something else”. “Gather together misfits,” says Mary, and “it will lead to what I saw and what I live with now.”

What she lives with now is an old age in exile and no end to sorrow. Smuggled away after the crucifixion, she relies for protection on her son’s “beloved disciple”, John. He is composing an account that will become the Gospel According to John, and presses Mary to corroborate the miracles wrought by her son.

But Mary is an unsatisfactory informant. Dry-eyed, almost defiant in her grief, she refuses to tell the gospel writer what he wants to hear, or to believe the truth as he sees it. When John says, “By his death he redeemed the world,” Mary replies with cold rage, “It was not worth it.” When he insists that Jesus was the son of God, she barely listens. “I know what happened,” she says.

And so The Testament of Mary. Notice that it is a testament – a bearing of witness – rather than a gospel, proclaiming unquestionable truth. “I cannot say more than I can say” is Mary’s credo. Having reached her own day of judgement, she is not one for idle words.

Tóibín’s Mary speaks plainly, as a village-born woman caught up in times of change. Under Roman occupation young men, Jesus’ friends, left the countryside for Jerusalem, bringing back “wild” ideas. “I had never heard anyone talk about the future until then,” Mary says, “unless it was tomorrow.” Only during a bread shortage had she seen crowds to rival those which would follow her son.

In Mary’s telling, Jesus is neither named nor capitalised, simply “him”, “my son”, “the one who was here”. Time makes strangers of our children, she reflects. In the end, more than anything, she wants her son back. “I want what happened not to have happened,” she confides to the statue of Artemis – virgin goddess of childbirth – in the old Greek temple at Ephesus. “And I am whispering the words, knowing that words matter …”

The Testament of Mary is deft, moving and deeply agnostic, rivalling David Malouf’s Ransom as a portrait of harrowed parenthood and an antidote to cant.

Robyn Annear

Robyn Annear is a writer and historian based in Castlemaine, Victoria. Her books include A City Lost and Found: Whelan the Wrecker’s Melbourne and Fly a Rebel Flag: The Eureka Stockade.

'The Testament of Mary', Colm Tóibín, Picador; $19.99
November 2012

November 2012

From the front page

Surveillance grates

The government’s response to the Richardson review needs close scrutiny

Image of Stephen Bram’s work, Untitled, 2019, acrylic on canvas, 210 x 390 cm.

Currents of joy: Stephen Bram and John Nixon

Overlapping exhibitions by the two abstract artists convey their shared radical modernism

In light of recent events

Shamelessly derivative summer puzzle!
Image of Earth from the Moon

Pale blue dot

The myth of the ‘overview effect’, and how it serves space industry entrepreneurs

In This Issue

Words: Shane Maloney | Illustration: Chris Grosz

Vida Goldstein & Theodore Roosevelt

Jean Sibelius in Vienna, late 1880s. © Bettmann/Corbis

Who Stopped the Music

How Jean Sibelius ran out of notes

'Dead Europe'by Tony Krawitz (director). In limited release.

‘Dead Europe’ by Tony Krawitz (director)

Bill Henson, 'Untitled', 2009/2010. Image courtesy the artist and Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney.

The Vagina Dialogues: Do women really want less sex than men?

More in Arts & Letters

Image of Dhambit Munuŋgurr's Bees at Gäṉgän, 2019

Blue is the colour

The idiosyncratic work of Yolngu artist Dhambit Mununggurr

Image of ‘Empire and the Making of Native Title’

Dividing the Tasman: ‘Empire and the Making of Native Title’

Historian Bain Attwood examines the different approaches to sovereignty in the New Zealand and Australian settlements

Image of Shirley Hazzard

Shirley Hazzard’s wider world

The celebrated Australian author’s ‘Collected Stories’ sets private desperation in the cosmopolitan Europe she revered

Image from ‘Mank’

Citizen plain: ‘Mank’

David Fincher’s biopic of Orson Welles’s collaborating writer favours technique over heart

More in Noted

Image of ‘Jack’

‘Jack’ by Marilynne Robinson

History and suffering matter in the latest instalment of the American author’s Gilead novels

Image from ‘The Dry’

‘The Dry’ directed by Robert Connolly

Eric Bana stars as a troubled investigator dragged back to his home town in a sombre Australian thriller

Image of ‘The Living Sea of Waking Dreams’

‘The Living Sea of Waking Dreams’ by Richard Flanagan

The Booker Prize winner’s allegorical new novel about the permanence of loss

Image from ‘Kajillionaire’

‘Kajillionaire’ directed by Miranda July

A family of con artists are the American writer-director’s latest offbeat protagonists in a surreal but heartfelt film

Read on

Image of Stephen Bram’s work, Untitled, 2019, acrylic on canvas, 210 x 390 cm.

Currents of joy: Stephen Bram and John Nixon

Overlapping exhibitions by the two abstract artists convey their shared radical modernism

What elitism looks like

Flagrant conflicts of interest abound at the top

Image of Anne Ferran, Scenes on the Death of Nature I, 1986

‘Know My Name’ at the National Gallery of Australia

An exhilarating exhibition considers a persistent gender bias in the visual arts

Image of Prime Minister Scott Morrison

Morrison’s climate flip

Australia has a lot of catching up to do on emissions reduction