22-03-14

Colm Toibin: The Testament of Mary.

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What an odd little book is this !! 104 pages, Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2013, and about Mary, the Mother of God, not the most exciting subject these days. But is it about the Mother of God, or is it about the mother of Jesus ? This certainly is the most interesting aspect of the book: did Mary know or realize what was happening ? Or was she just a mother, afraid and perplexed by her sibling ? The book describes her thoughts and feelings, a few years after the death of Christ, with his disciples writing down what happened. She does not like them, she doesn't share their feelings, and that is both an interesting idea and a provocative idea, as they make up stories to make everything sound better.

I have read it twice now, and still don't know what to think of it. You have to be a Catholic to understand it, I think, and it seems like an attack on the Church, but it is so stunningly beautiful that I really wonder what the author meant. To be provocative ? Maybe it is, in Ireland, where Catholics are still a bit more Catholic than in Belgium, but on the other hand, if it all happened, it very probably was a bit like this. To found a religion you need fanatics and people who are a bit unstable and probably some of the key players were not really aware of the importance of what happened.

The love of Mary for her son is absolutely touching, but there are other small things in the book that make her very human. Two things I really loved: her visit to the temple of Artemis and the discussion about the chair. In the first she is taken by a neighbour to the Temple of Artemis, a Roman Goddess, and she buys a religious souvenir, a small statue. At night she finds consolation in talking to it and it makes her so human, because personal religion often is about consolation. Another mother, 1000 or 2000 years later, will probably do exactly the same with a statue of Mary (and so an odd circle is formed when today's personification of consolation seeks it with an ancient one, and you understand they are both in the end the same thing). In one part of the book one of the disciples of Christ wants to use the chair of her dead husband. When she says that the one who used this chair will never return and that she does not want anyone else to use it, they misunderstand her, saying that He will return. When one of them takes it to sit in it, she suddenly reacts very threateningly and you see that Mary was also a wife, and one that missed her husband.

It is a book of a wonderful intensity, with beautiful prose, and I will probably reread it again and again, enjoying the beauty and the purity of its language. In that it reminds me a bit of the works of Timmermans, the Belgian writer, who wrote the most touching books about religious themes that are now outdated but whose language is so beautiful it is timeless. I wonder how long this one will follow me, and I think I'm going to put it next to the two Timmermans.