November 2012

Arts & Letters

‘The Testament of Mary’ by Colm Tóibín

By Robyn Annear
'The Testament of Mary', Colm Tóibín, Picador; $19.99

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.

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