[Have taken a break from book-reviewing for various reasons, but here's one I did for the Hindu Literary Review]
In contemporary fiction, the retelling of old stories – myths, folklore and religious texts among them – has become almost a genre unto itself. There have been countless revisionist versions of the Mahabharata or Ramayana in India, including “perspective” narratives that filter events through the eyes of a particular character. Done well, this gives us new lenses through which to see familiar stories we had taken for granted, or grown weary of; in the process, we may also understand something about how legends come into being and then become buttressed and sanctified through repetition over the centuries.
In his slim new book, the Irish writer Colm Tóibín, whose 2004 novel The Master was a fictionalised treatment of a key period in Henry James’s life, turns to a more distant story that is both shrouded in mist and set in stone. The Testament of Mary is an account of certain episodes in Jesus Christ’s life, as told in the confused, plaintive voice of his mother Mary, long after the crucifixion. That the old woman we encounter in these pages will be a de-mythologised version of the Holy Virgin is obvious almost from the opening paragraph: Mary speaks of men who visit her repeatedly, trying to gather anecdotes and recollections ("I like it that they feed me and pay for my clothes and protect me"), and we can tell that these are apostles engaged in the process of myth-making, collecting material for their books. But the narrative she tells, finally, is not to them – it is to us, and throughout Tóibín keeps us aware that this is as much a story as the “official” ones handed down over thousands of years.
Unlike another recent retelling, Philip Pullman’s The Good Man Jesus and theScoundrel Christ – told by an omniscient narrator and in the gentle, dialogue-driven cadences of a tale read out to young readers – The Testament of Mary is an intense first-person narrative that comes to resemble interior monologue. The prose has the stillness that marks Tóibín’s best work – the effect is a little like watching incoming waves on a sea-shore, knowing that the soft murmurs might soon turn into something louder, more strident – and naturally, given the subject matter, it is run through with melancholia, the need to remember set against the pain of remembering.
The voice we get here is the one of a mother befuddled by all this talk of her boy being the “Son of God”; a woman who doesn’t care about the big picture, who wishes only that time could be turned back to the days when she and her child and husband were happy together, untouched by the burden of divinity. But it is also the wise, knowing gaze of someone fearful of the things that happen when groups of men – social misfits, who cannot look a woman in the eye, who need a form of validation, and are driven by those twin qualities, “foolishness and cruelty” – gather together. Do such herds inevitably beget cults of violence, or lead to the formation of a new religion, or both? It is a question that hangs over this book, without being explicitly stated.
Being treated as the mother of the Messiah is frightening for Mary, especially as she senses that attempts are being made to co-opt her into the creation of legends. Recalling the famous incident at the Cana wedding, she insists she had nothing to do with the water-into-wine “miracle” (in her telling, Jesus’s remark “Woman, what have I to do with thee?” was made in another context), but that his followers focused their attention on her as if willing her to be part of the episode. Hence the mundane and unglamorous view of big events such as the sermons (“...my son would insist on silence and begin to address them as though they were a crowd, his voice all false and his tone all stilted, and I could not bear to hear him, it was like something grinding...”) or the rise of Lazarus, presented here in ambiguous terms. Hence her recollection of watching her son’s final, painful journey to the hill, his attempts to remove the crown of thorns from his head, and of her own guilt of leaving him on the cross to bear the last moments of his Passion alone. Her searing admission that despite everything she witnessed and felt, ultimately “the pain was his and not mine”, is a poignant counterpoint to the conceit of one man dying for the sins of a race.
The is a quiet book on the face of it, but there is tumult beneath its surface – not the obvious violence of nails being driven into a man’s hands but the violence of pattern-seeking narratives imposing themselves on and bullying “ordinary” lives, so that the world of dreams is the only remaining place where some grace may be found. “I want to be able to imagine that what happened to him will not come, it will see us and decide – not now, not them,” Mary says, “And we will be left in peace to grow old.”