Saturday, August 17, 2013

Reading Notes: The Testament of Mary

This review constitutes part of my commitment to read and review as many of the 13 Man Booker longlisted titles as possible before the announcement of the shortlist on 10 September. The Testament of Mary is the second book in the list I have read.

There is some dispute about whether The Testament of Mary should even be on the Man Booker longlist. This is not because of its content (however potentially controversial), nor its quality (as I'll discuss, this haunting little book is an incredible feat of literature in many, many ways). Rather, it's because of its extreme brevity.

At 120-some pages, Toibin's book could fairly be described as a novella rather than a novel - indeed, I've read books marketed as novellas recently that were longer than this work. However, I'm standing on the side of defending the place of this book on the longlist, on the grounds that it is a complete achievement that takes on novelistic level themes and tells a complex story successfully. Indeed, the fact that Toibin is able to achieve what he does in such a brief work is a testament - see what I did there? - to his skill as a writer and thinker.

I found this brief book utterly compelling. I read it in one evening easily, which speaks to its clarity, but I am sure I'll go back and read it over and over. I found it thought-provoking, moving, uncomfortable and challenging, and I know I'll be thinking about it for a long time to come.

As you might gather from the title, this is Toibin's take of the story of the ministry and death of Jesus from the first-person viewpoint of his mother Mary. There has been a trend in the last thirty years to write biblical stories and characters in ways that emphasise their humanity and vulnerability rather than their sanctity and symbolic value, and this continues in that vein, but does more with it, in my view, than most writers have been able to achieve.

In his Mary, Toibin gives us a woman who is angry, frustrated, confused and bitter - not only at her son's killers, but at those who she sees as his (and her) manipulators, which includes various unnamed disciples. Mary struggles, throughout her narrative, to deliver Jesus from the deadly web that his activities and pronouncements are entangling him in, and shows with devastating force that any such rescue was impossible from the outset, not necessarily because of prophecy and manifest destiny, but because of politics and power.

Toibin's handling of key events and key prophetic milestones in the story of Jesus is masterful, sensitive and persuasive. As you would expect from a story about Jesus, history's ultimate resurrection man, Mary's tale dwells often on themes of life, death and the afterlife. The handling of the raising of Lazarus is particularly chillingly well done. Toibin's vision of raised Lazarus as a kind of agonised, speechless (but not murderous) zombie is incredibly powerful and affecting. Throughout it all, Toibin, through Mary's voice, seems to be asking - Even if it's possible, should the dead rise? Is this right, is it proper, is it good? He  contrasts Mary's vision, which is dim and uncertain, of quietude and absence in death, to the almost hysteric seizing on the hope of life eternal by the disciples, their determination to twist Jesus' strange power and ultimate death to their own hectic ends.

It's been suggested that this book is blasphemous. I was raised in a very strict Protestant church, and I'd agree, that by the measures used in my upbringing, it probably is. Certainly, I imagine most Catholic readers would find some of the chief propositions at least worrying, if not actually sacriligeous.

Toibin's decision to have Mary and all the followers already gone by the time Jesus dies, and not present for his burial, is contrary to the Biblical accounts. His remarkably persuasive and nuanced representation of the scene in the garden, where Jesus appears to Mary Magdalene and the other women, as a shared but possibly visionary dream of Mary and Mary, the mother of Jesus, rather than a "real" event, is also likely to be seen as problematic, as the basis of Christianity is not that Jesus lived or even that he died on a cross, but that he rose from the dead and, by his death and resurrection, opened a path to salvation for humanity. (This is the way most Protestant churches represent the core theology, anyway).

Any interpretation that questions the actuality of the resurrection is pretty much going to be difficult for believers, although I would hope that minds might be open enough to see the beauty in the way Toibin represents this critical moment, the almost translucent loveliness of the way Mary's words embrace and enclose her son.

For me, I have moved a long way from my hellfire and brimstone roots, and it is no longer important to my spirituality to believe that the Bible is a literal record of actual events, or that the actors in it were some kind of sanctified, purified uber-humans. I found Toibin's Mary startling - human, engrossing, powerful - and I was neither offended nor distressed by his Jesus, a man of obvious power (Toibin never elides this) and charisma, but also a wordly innocence that traps him in the end. I am still thinking about this book, and expect to be for some time to come. I would recommend it wholeheartedly to anyone who isn't of a high degree of Christian religious sensibility.

Other Booker longlist reviews can be found here:
Five Star Billionaire

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