“I have been made wild by what I saw and nothing has ever changed that. I have been unhinged by what I saw in daylight and no darkness will assuage that, or lessen what it did to me.”
This is how Mary, mother of Jesus, remembers her son’s death in Colm Toibin’s new novella. For Mary, the crucifixion was not, as Jesus’ followers tell her, “necessary,” nor was it done, as they claim, so that humankind “would be saved.” To Mary, her son’s death is a classical tragedy; it will not bring about redemption.
As the novella opens, Jesus is dead and Mary is living in hiding in Ephesus. Two unnamed men, most likely St. John and St. Paul, visit her, asking for details of Jesus’ life: They are busy writing the Gospel, building a religion. Mary, however, is busy mourning, and she refuses to satisfy the men’s “earnest need for foolish anecdotes or sharp, simple patterns in the story of what happened to us all.”
The story Mary tells is painful: how the charismatic Jesus, “utterly confident and radiant,” attracted an unruly following of “fools, twitchers, malcontents, stammerers,” those on the margins who were eager to believe that the old world was coming to an end; how, at first reluctantly and then more eagerly, Jesus believed his followers when they called him the Son of God; how he raised Lazarus from the dead and turned water into wine; and how, finally, he was put to violent death.
And yet Mary relates this in a voice that is so restrained, understated and clear, that it renders the pain that much more painful. Toibin puts Mary at the scene of her son’s death, and here is how she remembers it: “We held each other and we stood back. That is what we did. We held each other and stood back as he howled out words that I could not catch.”
We might think that this is all we can do in the face of such suffering. For Mary, however, this isn’t enough. She reproves herself for abandoning her son before his death — having been warned that she will be rounded up next, she slips away with St. John — and for not more fully participating in his grief, because “despite the pain I felt, a pain that has never lifted, and will go with me into the grave, despite all of this, the pain was his and not mine.”
Toibin’s Mary is different from the Mary we’re accustomed to. She’s stubborn and skeptical, devoted to her dead husband, Joseph, and religiously promiscuous: In the final, lyrical scene, Mary visits a Roman temple and prays to “the great goddess Artemis.”
Still, despite its unorthodoxies, The Testament of Mary is a simple — one might say classical — tale, showing how violence, even redemptive violence, frustrates our attempts to make sense of it. We continue to tell stories because that’s all we can do. But, in the end, as Mary reminds us, “no words will make the slightest difference to the sky at night. They will not brighten it or make it less strange.”
Anthony Domestico reviewed this book for The San Francisco Chronicle.