In just 100 pages, The Testament of Mary shares the perspective of the mother of Jesus and salient events for the Christian religion. In an interview with Geraldine Doogue for the ABC’s Compass program, Toibin explores the ideas and inspiration for his powerful novella that was nominated for the Man Booker Prize .
Mary is portrayed as intelligent, angry and fearless who observes excitement in the crowd, including some disciples, as Jesus is crucified. She realises that she alone seeks to avoid the inevitability of her son’s painful death. The story is compelling – an authenticity conveyed through details that support a first person viewpoint. Students should consider the way the narrative steps in and out of action, through personal contemplation, using devices that assume the reader’s knowledge. Anonymity for important characters opens up Mary’s perspective to include many, yet references to specific events and close friends sustains our empathy.
In 2000, Toibin taught a course in New York titled ‘Relentlessness’ which attracted quite intense students. This excerpt from ‘Mary, Catholics and Ireland’ provides insights into early imaginings of Mary’s perspective:
So I thought we should start at the top really and we should look at Medea, Electra and Antigone in various translations. At the staccato language of the translations. At the heightened tone of these women in pain.
And what I had in mind was….The voice would be the voice of someone with nothing to lose anymore, where it’s all over. So she’s not the meek mother and she’s not the grieving mother, she’s the angry woman whose tone is relentless and whose days and nights are filled with the memory of what happened and the fact that almost she alone is the only one willing to face the enormous cruelty of what occurred.
Colm Toibin, reading
I tried to see his face as he screamed in pain, but it was so contorted in agony and covered in blood that I saw no on I recognized, it was the voice I recognised, the sounds he made that belonged only to him…… He howled out words that I could not catch.
And maybe I should have moved towards him then, no matter what the consequence would have been. It would not have mattered, but at least I would not have to go over and over it now, wondering how I could not have run towards them and pulled them back and shouted out words, how I could have watched and remained still and silent. But that is what I did.”
You are playing with such a piece of massive symbolism here with Mary.
Well you see she is a symbol of something to some extent in that she’s a symbol of meekness, of humility. She’s also the figure of the grieving woman who is powerless in the world and that gives her for Catholics a sort of power. In other words you can implore her because she will understand yourself because she too suffered.
Because really she is a model of forbearance isn’t she, in the received tradition.
Yes. She’s a model. Well you see she really fits anything we want her to fit because she’s queen of heaven. I mean the immaculate conception is too abstract really but the assumption for all of us I think is really magnificent.
You know in those paintings she was assumed body and soul into heaven. She’s alone among mortals having been assumed body and soul. But then there’s also the idea that she was dragged through this extraordinary suffering and that she showed extraordinary forbearance during it for example. But that’s in the gospel of St John. Matthew, Mark and Luke don’t much have her there.
So she flits in and out of this story. But what’s strange is, I mean what’s really strange is the way in which she comes to dominate Catholicism, especially in certain countries considering the lack of evidence for her.
Watch the complete program, or read the full transcript of the interview between Doogue and Toibin http://www.abc.net.au/compass/s3860821.htm