Colm Toibin: The Testament of Mary.

the testament of mary.png

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.   


Pat Barker: The Regeneration Trilogy

Burns. Rivers had become adept at finding bearable aspects to unbearable experiences, but Burns defeated him. What had happened to him was so vile, so disgusting, that Rivers could find no redeeming feature. He'd been thrown into the air by the explosion of a shell and had landed, head-first, on a German corpse, whose gas-filled belly had ruptured on impact. Before Burns lost consciousness, he'd had time to realize that what filled his nose and mouth was decomposing human flesh. Now, whenever he tried to eat, that taste and smell recurred. Nightly, he relived the experience, and from every nightmare he awoke vomiting. Burns on his knees, as Rivers had often seen him, retching up the last ounce of bile, hardly looked like a human being at all. His body seemed to have become merely the skin-and-bone casing for a tormented alimentary canal. His suffering was without purpose or dignity, and yes, Rivers knew exactly what Burns meant when he said that it was a joke.

PAT BARKER, Regeneration,


I live in Leuven/Louvain. My grandfather was wounded in 1914 in the last Belgian counter-attack before the Yzer. One of the uncles of my mom is buried in Flanders as a soldier, having survived the fighting but not the Spanish flu. An American nurse that fell in love with him paid for his tombstone and my uncle said to me that you can still see it in a small village somewhere in West-Flanders. 100 years ago the Great War passed through Belgium and changed the face of the world.

One of the reasons why I became a historian was my granddad, a farmer and a local politician (responsable for agriculture in a small village, Oppuurs), who spend some time at our home recovering from an operation. He was fond of books and history and I can still picture him reading The Longest Day, and he told lots of stories about his past. Books about the first World War interest me still.

So when Pat Barker won the Booker Price in 1995 with The Ghost Road I deecided to buy all three volumes and start with the first one, Regeneration. It tells the story of an encounter that happened in 1917 in Craiglockhart between an army doctor/psychologist,W.H.R. Rivers, and Siegfried Sassoon, the famous anti-war poet. The stories of the things that happened to soldiers and officers that were so horrible that it drove them mad are described here by a medic, full of compassion, but who's job it was to make them fit to go back, and who believed in what he was doing. We meet several people that are historical, like Rivers himself, and the poets Owen and Sassoon, but also an intriguing fictional figure called Billy Prior.


In the three books (Regeneration, The Eye in the Door, The Ghost Road) stories start mixing and building up: Rivers working as an antropologist on Eddystone Island amongst the headhunters, Billy Prior working for Intelligence and wrestling with his past, the difficult position of homosexuals (an eye-opener to me when I read it), Britisch society in 1917-1918, the anti-war movement and how society reacted to it... It's curious that where I remembered these books mainly for the stories about shell-shock and homofobia when I read them in 1995, I now seemed to like the parts about Billy Prior most. The books change when you are rereading them, and for me, a fast reader, this is the best giveaway for a really good book. I will probably continue reading it until I die.

2014 is a good year to start.





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Shani Boianjiu: The People of Forever are Not Afraid

It was pure curiosity that made me grab this book and buy it. Sometimes you have a tendency to keep buying books that are close sisters or brothers of the one you allready know, either because you know you are going to like them and they will please you or because you know they are not going to "bother you" with new thoughts, new ideas and other things that wake you up. And sometimes it is good to change this.

It was the same reason that kept me reading. Curiosity about Israel, youth, girls and women, growing up in this era, growing up in a state that is permanently in conflict with others and itself...The book surprised me from the first page. It changes position all of the time, and tells the story from the eyes of three young women that grow up in a small border town in northern Isreal and than go into the army. Some parts are almost dream like and the chapter about Lea and the sandwich bar is like a painting by Edward Hopper (and has a quite surprising climax).

It reminded me a bit of other debuts like The Catcher in the Rye or De Avonden and it is full of the "newness" of youth, where everything that happens to you seems new, even when it is allready routine (thinking for the first time "this is not new" is also new). It did make me a bit jealous sometimes. 

On top of this I think it gives a very good idea about Israël and its unique situation in today's world. And not only about what gets in the news, but also about everyday's life for Israël's young people. I think I learned about that, but also about today's youth and about women in general. I loved reading it and will probably read it again in some time to catch what has eluded me during first reading. I loved the style and the freshness of the words.


I started reading it in Bistro Beau Site in Ostend, in bright coastal autumn light, during lunchtime, and in the company of a Papegaei, https://www.facebook.com/Papegaei, a wonderful Belgian Ale. Could also be read with a kosher Chardonnay, but not with red wine. I feel it needs something with the colour of the sun.  

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