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Reading the Man Booker Prize 2013: The Testament of Mary by Colm Tóibín

And there you have it: In what the bookmakers had down as a close finish between Jim Crace and Colm Tóibín, Eleanor Catton has won the 2013 Man Booker Prize for her novel The Luminaries. At 28, she is the youngest author to have won the prize, and The Luminaries is also the longest work (at 832 pages) to win.

By the time the winner was announced, I was making my way through book number five of the shortlisted six, but as luck would have it, the winner is the one book the library didn’t have ready for me yet. I’m guessing the current borrower is having a rough time getting through all those pages, but I’m optimistic and hope to have my review ready soon.

While people are rushing to the bookshops to buy Catton’s novel, it’s worth focussing on the rest of the quickly forgotten contenders a bit longer. Colm Tóibín has been shortlisted for this prize twice before, first 1999 and then in 2004, a fact which must have influenced the bookmakers’ and critics’ expectations. But while he is undoubtably one of the greats, The Testament of Mary really speaks for itself. In this short novella, a mere 104 pages long, Tóibín doesn’t choose just any historical material to rework and reconsider — the Mary in question, old, exiled and mourning the loss of her son, is the Holy one, mother of Jesus of Nazareth.

The Testament of Mary by Colm Toibin

Firm in my non-beliefs, I tend to stay away from biblical reworkings. Although I do have a basic understanding of Christian doctrine, I’m just not interested enough in the subject. There have been a few such books that I found captivating (The Master and Margarita being one of them), but I’m not sure I would have made the time for Tóibín’s book had it not been for this nomination. As it turned out, The Testament of Mary did much more for me, and presumably quite a few other readers, than one could have expected. This is a retelling of a very familiar story, but Mary is the one giving testament, and her voice is the only one that matters. Rushed to safety by Jesus’s followers after the crucifixion, she is effectively locked away from the world. Although she is now old and ready to die, she is strong in her desire to tell the story as she witnessed it, and not as her son’s followers urge her to testify. In the voice of his mother, undisturbed by gospel and myth, the story of Jesus boils down to foolish decisions in a dangerous political situation, and grief on a very personal scale. Jesus himself is never once named in the book, as Mary refuses to do so. For her, there are two of him: Her son, and the public figure he became in adulthood. Although cautious and bound by love, Mary is critical of this second persona, “His voice all false, and his tone all stilted.” Despite this criticism, and although they brought her nothing but trouble, she is now resigned to the fact that her son’s “miracles” will over time be treated as fact. Jesus’s followers, men she has come to fear, will make sure of that. The important part of her testament is her personal desire to speak and accept her own role in her son’s death. After recounting the last days of his life in a distanced and neutral tone, Mary’s confession of her failure and inability to act bring out raw emotions.

He was the boy I had given birth to and he was more defenceless now than he had been then. And in those days after he was born, […] if I had even dreamed that I would see him bloody, and the crowd around filled with zeal that he should be bloodied more, I would have cried out as I cried out that day and the cry would have come from a part of me that is the core of me. The rest of me is merely flesh and blood and bone.

Yet this is nothing new. It may be raw, but it’s also melodramatic, and it’s one of the scenes that defines Christianity. What is new is Mary’s held-back but palpable rage against a doctrine that uses her personal heartbreak as a collective feeling of pain, an inspirational story for believers. The only thing that is important to her now is to remind herself of the value of her story.

I do not know why it matters that I should tell the truth to myself at night, why it should matter that the truth should be spoken at least once in the world. Because the world is a place of silence, the sky at night when the birds have gone is a vast silent place. No words will make the slightest difference to the sky at night.

Her words will not make a difference to anyone but herself, but that is enough.

The Testament of Mary is a beautiful book. It’s sad, and doesn’t end a tragic story on a hopeful note, but that makes it all the better.

By Karo

Schnazzy East German translator and cricket obsessive residing in England. I have other qualities, too.

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