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A more human Mary
A more human Mary

_"They appear more often now, both of them, and on every visit they seem more impatient with me and with the world. There is something hungry and rough in them, a brutality boiling in their blood, which I have seen before and can smell as an animal that is being hunted can smell." _

  • - from Colm Toibin's *

  • The Testament of Mary *

This is not the voice of the Mary of the New Testament - not that she has much of a voice in that anyway. Neither is it the voice of the flawless Madonna portrayed by Italian Renaissance painters and sculptors. It is the voice of the aged, wrinkled, bitter, sceptical Mary, exiled in Ephesus and tormented by two of Jesus' disciples, who like latter-day spin doctors want an account of her son's end that they can sex up to further their own agenda.

"I wanted to do something new with the iconography, or the image, of Mary by making her not just a mother but a woman who was old and traumatised," says acclaimed Irish author and journalist Colm Toibin on the line from Hong Kong, where he's just flown in for a literary festival.

Toibin is a master ventriloquist who so completely inhabited the psyche of Henry James in his Man Booker shortlisted 2004 novel, The Master.

In The Testament of Mary he gives us a Mary for our troubled times, partly inspired by Greek dramatist Aeschylus' Elektra and Euripides' Medea - the idea of the "lamenting, grieving, angry, relentless figure in ancient Greek theatre".

Not that there is anything sacrilegious or blasphemous in this short novella, originally a monologue written for the stage and first performed at the Dublin Theatre Festival in 2011. Rather, it is in the interstices, the penumbrae, between the Gospel texts that Toibin fleshes out a more human, humane Mary by pursuing her elusive voice and seeing where it leads. Quite the opposite of sexing up. "I suppose the first thing is that it has to matter to you," says Toibin, an openly gay writer whose grandfather was a member of the IRA and so perhaps familiar with both alienation and belonging in their most fraught forms.

"It isn't some dry exercise in art-making. And I was never going to make a mockery of the Gospels. With the figure of Mary, I suppose it was the idea of unresolved experience, of somebody not having worked trauma through - what might that sound like in a voice? And then getting that voice and seeing where it leads you. Because I didn't know where it would lead me."

This was especially the case with the miracles in the book. "I was very surprised by Lazarus, for example," he says. "I was almost going to gloss over it, just to have it as an extra thing to be dealt with so they could get on with the wedding feast. But this business of someone who is dead and yet who might come back, who is all right after all - I think that's something very close to our dreams and something a lot of people have sensed or felt."

Another troubling "reality" which foreshadows Jesus' own dreamlike resurrection and ascension into heaven, then. Troubling, because Mary wonders whether "mankind" was worth the sacrifice at all.

"Because her voice is so particular and her sense of life so exact, she doesn't stand for motherhood or is in any other way just an image of herself," says Toibin. "This is the voice of an individual, and the idea that her son was selected to be sacrificed in this way is to her genuinely appalling." Which is where we come back to the thunderous dissonance between spin and sorrowful reality, and how that might relate to the situation in, say, Afghanistan.

"You had the coffins coming back from Afghanistan almost every week and the (British) Prime Minister saying things like, 'These men fought for freedom' and other pieces of, to my ears, empty rhetoric," says Toibin.

"Now, if that dead soldier were your son or your brother or your father, the distance between how you would feel and the strangely mangled public language you heard would be obvious. And you'd think it would have been better if it were somebody else."