Sunday 26 October 2014

Brian Lynch on Colm Tóibín's provocative new novel

Published 28/10/2012 | 06:00

If Colm Tóibín were a Muslim and this book were about the mother of Mohammed he would be in danger of getting his head cut off. His new novel, The Testament of Mary, is the story of Christ's mother told in her own words. (She is now an old woman living in exile and in fear in the ancient city of Ephesus in what is now Turkey, where she is visited by men who want her to recall the past.)

In the western world writers are free to say anything they like about the Mother of God or, indeed, about her son. So the only martyrdom Tóibín is likely to suffer is anonymous letters from the Christian Family League on Craggy Island.

On the other hand, the sort of superior anti-religious persons who regard Father Ted as a documentary may be startled to discover that Tóibín is not one of them.

He is no atheist, like Salman Rushdie or Richard Dawkins. Far from it. On the evidence of this Testament, he is a convinced believer in the fundamental tenets of Christianity, namely that Jesus performed miracles, died on the cross and rose from the dead.

But it's not Tóibín's fundamentals that will irk old-style Catholics; it's the incidentals. For one thing his Christ is a hysterical rabble-rousing attention-seeker with very bad manners. For another, at the crucifixion his mother ducks behind the cross, letting on she is looking for a place to relieve herself in, then does a runner, abandoning her son.

Language is part of Mary's problem. She can't read or write. When the book opens, a couple of nameless men are recording the facts of her son's life. Because she is illiterate she doesn't know what they are writing, but she is suspicious. Rightly so: they don't want her to tell the awkward truth; what they want is the Disney version of the Holy Family film, starring Christ as the King and her as the Queen Mum.

Mary's interrogators are creepy. Although they are meant to be writing the Gospel truth they behave more like tabloid journalists puffing a celebrity. This is part of Tóibín's purpose: to show that Mary's world was murky enough to have been part of the Murdoch empire.

This empire is very male. Men stink. They are rough brutes. Whenever more than two of them get together there is going to be cruelty -- in Mary's eyes cruelty is the essential sin. She has no time for society, she believes only in the family. In short the woman Mary reminds me of is Maggie Thatcher.

This is fun. Which is one of Tóibín's many other purposes: to write a funny book.

Take the miracle at Cana for example. Before Christ turned the water into wine he said to his mother, 'Woman, what have I to do with thee?'

In the gospel according to John, Mary is struck dumb. In Tóibín's version she gives him his answer: 'I am your mother.' One guesses that it was only with the greatest reluctance that Tóibín didn't add, 'And if you speak to me like that again I'll redden your ear for you'.

Tóibín's Mary may be in some respects an orthodox Irish mammy. But religion-wise she is not so much an a la carte Catholic as a pure pagan: to pass the time she likes to go to the Temple of Artemis and say a prayer to the goddess of fertility. In fact, she is a bit like President Mary McAleese when she outraged the Archbishop of Dublin by taking Communion in a Protestant church.

Maggie Thatcher crossed with Mary McAleese -- that's some combination.

This is a short book -- 104 pages, partly adapted from a play put on in the Abbey Theatre last year -- and as a result much of the story is passed over in silence. For example, Joseph is an off-stage presence. However, there is no doubt that he is the father of Jesus and that Mary is not a blessed virgin. Sex, though, is absent from the action.

What we get instead is violence. The crucifixion of Jesus in this book is as gruesomely violent as Mel Gibson's depiction of it in The Passion of Christ.

Tóibín's most effective and startling portrait is Lazarus. After Christ raises him from the dead, he is led away by his sisters howling and crying.

At the wedding feast of Cana all he can eat is small pieces of bread soaked in water 'as though he had tasted something or seen or heard something which had . . . frightened him beyond belief'.

Tóibín's Testament is a work of the imagination, a shockingly provocative entertainment, yet somehow nostalgic for the nightmare of the Christian past. It's a quick read but a slow burner.

Brian Lynch is a poet, screenwriter and novelist.

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