Testament of Mary by Colm Toibin

“They appear more often now, both of them, and on every visit they seem more impatient Testament of Marywith me and with the world. There is something hungry and rough in them, a brutality boiling in their blood…But I am not being hunted now. Not any more. I am being cared for, and questioned softly, and watched. …They think I do not understand what is slowly growing in the world; they think I do not see the point of their questions and do not notice the cruel shadow of exasperation that comes hooded in their faces or hidden in their voices when I say something pointless or foolish, something which leads us nowhere. …They are too locked into their vast and insatiable needs and too dulled by the remnants of a terror we all felt then to have noticed that I remember everything. Memory fills my body as much as blood and bones.”

“Of the two men who come, one was there with us until the end…I know that he has written of things that neither he saw nor I saw. I know that he has also given shape to what I lived through and he witnessed, and that he has made sure that these words will matter, that they will be listened to.”

“I remember too much; I am like the air on a calm day as it holds itself still, letting nothing escape. As the world holds its breath, I keep memory in.”

There are those around Mary who want to help her and there are those whom she intuits are a threat and sometimes the line between must seem very thin. “Just as my two friends who visit are looking for my voice, my witness, this man who played dice (for her son’s clothes), and the strangler (a man who had a huge bird in a cage and rabbits in a bag and strangled the rabbits to feed to the bird), or others like them, must be looking for my silence. I will know them if they come and it should hardly matter now, since the days left are few, but I remain, in my waking time, desperately afraid of them.”

To appreciate this account, empathy for a mother who has witnessed her son’s death by extreme violence of a kind that would be defined as cruel torture in contemporary terms is essential. The account is creative fiction, yes, but the likelihood that it happened this way is strong. That she believed her son innocent of a crime punishable by death is also likely and that she was confused about the events that brought about his death is an extremely likely possibility. The publisher’s blurb on the jacket says that “Tóibín’s tour de force of imagination, language, and compassion provides a portrait so vivid and convincing that our image of Mary will be forever transformed.” The latter may happen if the reader can overcome the disinclination to exercise compassion where a story so submerged in our culture by rote repetition of the events  that compassion for Christ’s mother has been leached out of the details over time.

It seems simple but many readers have rejected Tóibín’s interpretation. Perhaps they are not so very different from the men around Mary immediately prior to the crucifixion: “They have no interest in my fear and the fear all those around me felt, the sense that there were men waiting to round us up too when we sought to move away, that there seemed no possibility that we would not be held.”

While waiting for the inevitable, Mary recalls events of her son’s childhood: …”the day our son was lost and how we found him and what was said. I cannot say the name, it will not come, something will break in me if I say the name. So we call him ‘him’, ‘my son’, ‘our son’,’the one who was here’, ‘your friend’, ‘the one you are interested in’. Maybe before I die I will say the name or manage on one of those nights to whisper it but I do not think so.”

She recalls speaking with him on one occasion over a meal before he left home: “He gathered around him, I said, a group of misfits, who were only children like himself, or men without fathers, or men who could not look a woman in the eye. Men who were seen smiling to themselves, or who had grown old when they were still young. Not one of you was normal, I said, and I watched him push his plate of half-eaten food towards me as though he were a child in a tantrum. Yes, misfits, I said. My son gathered misfits, although he himself, despite everything, was not a misfit; he could have done anything, he could have been quiet even, he had that capacity also, the one that is the rarest, he could have spent time alone with ease, he could look at a woman as though she were his equal, and he was grateful, good-mannered, intelligent. And he used all of it, I said,  so he could lead a group of men who trusted him from place to place. I have no time for misfits, I said, but if you put two of you together you will get not only foolishness and the usual cruelty but you will get a desperate need for something else. Gather together misfits, I said, pushing the plate back towards him, and you will get anything at all – fearlessness, ambition, anything – and before it dissolves or it grows, it will lead to what I saw and what I live with now.”

For me, the above speech appeared entirely realistic and I believe it did succeed in making me think differently about the bible stories I heard and learned as a child. The same is true for the story about Jesus being lost and then found in the temple : the coloured pictures presented in Sunday school of a rosy cheeked Jesus surrounded by the elders of the temple answering questions for them? Imagine a child, even an exceptional child, being so received by the elders of one of today’s religious sects. And yet, I never questioned the likelihood as I sat in a circle every Sunday. How many of us did? What image did we have of Jesus’ mother? These were all images created generations after the actual events and devoid of the dirt and poverty and political turmoil and intrigue of the times. Tóibín’s attempt to provide us with another image of Mary and her son inspired me to revisit some research topics I have not looked at in a long time. It might do the same for you.

 

Eon: Dragoneye Reborn by Alison Goodman

This is a delightful, daring, delicious, diverting and demanding dragon tale! And it has a sequel which I have started into already because I must know what happens next!

Most of what one needs to know is concisely provided in two pages entitled From the Primer Scrolls of Jion Tzu which states:

“No one knows how the first Dragoneyes made their dangerous bargain with the twelve energy dragons of good fortune. The few scrolls and poems that have survived the centuries start the story well after the deal was struck between man and spirit-beast to protect our land. It is rumored however, that a black folio still exists that tells of the violent beginning and predicts a catastrophic end to the ancient alliance.
The dragons are elemental beings, able to manipulate Hua – the natural energy that exists in all things. Each dragon is aligned with one of the heavenly animals in the twelve-year cycle of power…Each dragon is also the guardian of one of the twelve celestial directions, and a keeper of one of the Greater Virtues.”

Every year on New Year’s Day the next animal year begins and the dragon representing Eonthat animal becomes ascendant and his power doubles for the next twelve months. Also for that dragon a new apprentice is chosen and the present apprentice becomes Dragoneye and replaces his master who retires. The Dragoneye has enough power to move monsoons, redirect rivers and stop earthshakes. His bargain includes giving up his Hua to his dragon.

“Only those boys who can see an energy dragon can hope to be a Dragoneye candidate.” The boys go through a rigorous training program. This includes a study of Dragon Magic, based on East Asian astrology and based on the skills of sword-work and magical aptitude. It is understood that “women have no place in the world of the dragon magic.
It is said they can bring corruption to the art and do not have the physical strength or depth of character needed to commune with an energy dragon. It s also thought that the female eye, too practiced in gazing at itself, cannot see the truth of the energy world.”

At the outset we meet Eon at a training session: “I let the tips of both my swords dig into the sandy arena floor. It was the wrong move, but the dragging pain in my gut was pulling me into a crouch. I watched Swordmaster Ranne’s bare feet shuffle forward, rebalancing his weight for a sweep cut. Training with him always made my innards cramp with fear, but this was different. This was the bleeding pain. Had I miscounted the moon days?”

The Swordmaster tells Eon: “You’ll never be ready. You can’t even finish the approach sequence.”

Eon has a comfort that eases the harsh treatment from Ranne: “I was the only candidate who could see all of the dragons at will, not counting the Mirror Dragon, of course, who had been lost long ago. It took all my focus to see the spirit beasts and left me weary, but it was the only thing that had made the last two years of hard training bearable. It was also the only reason why a cripple like me was allowed to stand as a candidate – full dragon sight was rare, although, as Swordmaster Ranne liked to remind me, no guarantee of success.”

Needless to say,there is considerable pressure on the candidates for dragoneye apprenticeship. Eon ‘s friend Dillon was as worried as Eon was about the ceremony. Dillon and Eon “were the weakest candidates. He was of age – twelve, like all the boys in the circle – but as small as an eight year old, and I was lame. In the past, we wouldn’t even have been considered as Dragoneye candidates. Neither of us was expected to be chosen by the Rat Dragon in the ceremony tomorrrow. All the gambling rings have Dillon at a 30:1 chance. I was at 1000:1. The odds might be against us but even the council did not know how a dragon made its choice.”

Tough  odds! and reason to be worried. Lives would change for those who were not successful. “Candidates no longer fought for the honor of approaching the mirrors, but we still had to prove our strength and stamina in the ceremonial sword sequences. At least Dillon could complete the approach sequence, even if it was poorly done. I had never once managed the intricate moves at the Mirror Dragon Third.”

Much was riding on this contest. If the Rat Dragon chose a boy he would “hold status for twenty-four years; first working as apprentice to the existing Dragoneye and then, when he (that Dragoneye) retired, working the energies” himself. He would earn “a mountain of riches, even with the 20 per cent tithe” to his former master. To Eon, it meant that “no one would dare spit at him or make the ward-evil sign or turn their face away in disgust (because he was a cripple).”

If he did not get chosen, he would be lucky to be kept on as a servant in his master’s house likely as a slops boy or be sent back to the salt farm where he used to work.

No wonder Eon was puzzled by his gift to see all eleven dragons and his ability to shift his mind into the energy world and see those huge translucent bodies. He was told by the Armsmaster the day before the ceremony that he was never going to be able to get the Mirror Dragon Third sequence right but that there was a precedent for using a Reverse Horse Dragon Second and that Ranne should have told him about this. He checks with his master when he goes home and learns that what he has been told is correct. This means he has a chance.

Will he become a Dragoneye? How will he manage being a cripple and all? Why has it been made so difficult for him? Who are his friends? Who are his enemies? How will he manage against such odds? A great story that holds and grabs one’s attention to the end and leaves one wanting more, more, more!

The Painted Veil by W. Somerset Maugham

In the preface to the Vintage edition, the author relays a number of interesting things about this story. He explains that he was a student at St. Thomas’s Hospital and had six weeks of Easter vacation during which he went to Italy with his clothes and twenty pounds in his pocket. His widowed landlady’s daughter was teaching him Italian during part of the day and they were reading the Purgatorio and she told him a story connected to a passage they were translating.

“She told me that Pia was a gentlewoman of Siena whose husband, suspecting her of adultery and afraid on account of her family to put her to death, took her down to his castle in the Maremma the noxious vapors of which he was confident would do the trick; but she took so long to die that he grew impatient and had her thrown out the window…the story for some reason caught my imagination.” He goes on and explains that he forgot the story for a long time and when he did think of it could not “think of a setting in the world of today in which such events could plausibly happen. It was not until I made a long journey in China that I found this.”

Maugham also writes: “I think this is the only novel I have written in which I started from a story rather than from a character. It is difficult to explain the relation between character and plot. You cannot very well think of a character in the void; the moment you think of him, you think of him in some situation, doing something; so that the character and at least his principal action seem to be the result of a simultaneous act of the imagination. But in this case the characters were chosen to fit the story I gradually evolved; they were constructed from persons I had long known in different circumstances.” This is followed by a brief tale of problems naming characters and legal challenges to same: this would be of interest to those doing any writing of their own.

The actual story catches the reader’s interest immediately: “She gave a startled cry.” Painted VeilSomeone has just tried the door of a room and interrupted something. Very cinematic. Do you imagine a room in disarray, clothing scattered about, one shoe here, one there?

It is decided very quickly that the person trying the door and the windows too has to be Walter because the servants never disturb her at this time so it has to be Walter even though he “never does come home in the middle of the day, does he?” This is important because they have already realized that a hat was left downstairs which might give away the presence of another person in the house. They convince themselves it must have been a servant because “only a Chinese would turn a handle in that way.”

They discuss what they think will happen: “What’s to be done if it was Walter? she asked.

“”Perhaps he wouldn’t care.”

“Walter?”

Her tone was incredulous.”

The reader, at this point, knows no more about Walter than about the two people discussing Walter. At this point we do not have names for the two people who are so worried about Walter. In the next short chapter we learn that the woman is Kitty, that her lover is Charlie Townsend, the Assistant Colonial Secretary at Hong Kong and his wife is Dorothy Townsend, mother of Charlie’s three sons. Dorothy’s father had been a Colonial Governor. The triangle is complete.

Kitty has been meeting Charlie in the upstairs backroom of a Chinese curio dealer off the Victoria Road in Hong Kong and she found it “dreadfully sordid”. Charles Townsend, however, was everything her husband Walter was not. He told her everything she wanted and needed to hear. “She had never been in love before. It was wonderful. And now that she knew what love was she felt a sudden sympathy for the love that Walter bore her.”

“Her happiness, sometimes almost more than she could bear, renewed her beauty. Just before she married, beginning to lose her first freshness, she had looked tired and drawn.  The uncharitable said that she was going off. But there is all the difference between a girl of twenty-five and a married woman of that age. She was like a rosebud that is beginning to turn yellow at the edges of the petals, and then suddenly she was a rose in full bloom…She looked eighteen once more. She was at the height of her glowing loveliness…She was what Charlie had called her the first time he saw her, a raging beauty.”

“They managed their intrigue with skill. …They could not meet often alone, not half often enough for him, but he had to think of her first, sometimes in the curio shop, now and then after luncheon in her house when no one was about; but she saw him a good deal here and there.”

“She worshipped him. He was splendid …certainly he was the best dancer she had ever danced wth; it was a dream to dance with him. No one would think he was forty. She told him she did not believe it…He laughed. He was well pleased.”

And what of Walter? “Of course it was not certain yet that Walter knew the truth, and if he didn’t it was better perhaps to leave well alone; but if he did, well, in the end it would be the best thing for all of them. …It was not as though any one would suffer very much. She knew exactly what his relations were with his wife. She was a cold woman and there had been no love between them for years. …Walter loved her; but after all, he was absorbed in his work; and a man always had his club; he might be upset at first, but he would get over it; there was no reason why he should not marry someone else. Charlie had told her that he could not make out how she came to throw herself away on Walter Fane.”

Is it ever that simple? If you haven’t read this 1925 classic  you might be pleasantly surprised.  I found it an intriguing read with the exotic setting a major character. If you read it some time go, a reread might be surprisingly enjoyable.