Some years after the crucifixion of Jesus, his mother lives a mournful, isolated life. Having witnessed the execution, Mary has gone into hiding, fearful that the authorities who killed her son and many of his associates might be hunting her. She is visited, rather against her wishes, by two of her son's former followers. The visitors seem interested in Mary only as a possible source of information: They want her to confirm and perhaps extend some of their accounts of Jesus' actions.
But she does not remember things the way they do, or claim to. Besides, the events of Jesus' life, and the circumstances of his death, are still fresh and painful for her; she cannot even bring herself to utter his name. "Maybe before I die," she tells us, "I will say the name or manage on one of those nights to whisper it but I do not think so."
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Or so Colm Tóibín imagines the fate of Mary in his solemn, shimmering novella, "The Testament of Mary." Tóibín had to exert his imagination a great deal: The Bible has little to say about Mary. Once she gives birth to Jesus, she all but disappears, outside of a few references, including her presence at the wedding at Cana and at the crucifixion. It's a surprising paucity of information about a woman whose name is so well known and whose effect on the world is widely thought to have been so sweeping.
But the lack of information that is an impediment to the journalist is, for the fiction writer, decidedly an advantage: Where the facts are few, or indeterminate, imagination has free reign. Tóibín seizes the opportunity to imagine Mary as a concrete individual, a woman who responds to the events of Jesus' life not as one responds to history, myth or even scripture, but as human beings respond to human events. She responds, that is, with fear, grief, regret, anger and bewilderment.
We moderns often wonder how much historical accounts are to be trusted and sometimes allow ourselves to wish that we could have witnessed the events of history and myth, as if that would clear up the big questions. If only I had seen it for myself, we think, I would know what to believe. More likely, though, our experiences would still be confused and indeterminate — as confused and indeterminate as Mary's experiences of the resurrection of Lazarus or the turning of water into wine at Cana. The former seems at best only partial success: "Lazarus, it was clear to me, was dying. If he had come back to life, it was merely to say a last farewell to it." As for the wedding at Cana; well, it turns out (in Tóibín's version, at least) that it is hard even for those who were there to know precisely what happened. The description, in the precision of its imprecision, is finely executed:
"But my son stood up and spoke to those around him, asking that six stone containers full of water be brought to him. What was strange then was how quickly those containers were carried into the room. I do not know whether each one contained water or wine, certainly the first one contained water, but in all the shouting and confusion no one knew what happened until they began to shout that he had changed the water into wine. […] And then a vast cheering went up and everyone at the feast began to applaud."
It is in some respects unsurprising, then, that Tóibín's Mary has remained skeptical, and in some respects hostile, toward the movement — regarded by the authorities as a radical, utopian cult — her son founded and led. (How many mothers, at any rate, would believe a child's claim to be the son of God?) Jesus "gathered around him," she tells her visitors, "a group of misfits, who were only children like himself, or men without fathers, or men who could not look a woman in the eye. Men who were seen smiling to themselves, or who had grown old when they were still young. Not one of you was normal."
Whatever one's religious inclination, the claim that Jesus and his followers were not "normal" is surely plausible. For Mary, it is a source of deep anger: Her son's devotion to these misfits and their crusade cost him his life. She continues to be haunted by the awful circumstances of his death. (While "The Testament of Mary" does not aspire to the grotesquerie of Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ," its description of the crucifixion is disturbingly vivid.) And even more than this, she is haunted by her decision, according to the book, to flee her pursuers before Jesus had come down from the cross, her failure to be there to cradle his body in her arms.
When in the book's closing pages Mary delivers her final judgment on the matter, the judgment is one only a mother could utter, and the moment is quietly devastating. Here "The Testament of Mary" transcends the memorable and becomes quite unforgettable. Dogmatists of a certain sort might despise the book. Perhaps some skeptics will think it too sympathetic to the religious impulse. But the open-minded will almost certainly find their encounter with the gorgeously polished prose of this immaculately conceived piece of fiction to be a beautiful and quite spiritual experience.
Troy Jollimore is the author of two books of poetry, "Tom Thomson in Purgatory" and "At Lake Scugog," and of two philosophical books, "Love's Vision" and "On Loyalty."
'The Testament of Mary'
By Colm Tóibín, Scribner, 96 pages, $19.99Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times