According to Her (2022) by Maciej Hen is a modest but captivating, fictional autobiography of Mary, the mother of Jesus Christ and a devout Jewish woman. The novel was translated by Anna Blasiak, who skilfully captured the mood of the Polish original, stylising Mary’s confessions into everyday, simple language. The emergence of this English translation also reflects a growing fascination with the subject, a theme that has captured the attention of various authors, among them Colm Tóibín, whose 2012 masterpiece The Testament of Mary earned a place on the prestigious Booker Prize shortlist in 2013. Let’s just add that Hen’s novel predates Tóibin’s, as the Polish original was published in 2004.
We know very little about the historical Mary from the sacred texts, even though she is a central female figure in Christianity. Therefore, any alternative story about her is an intriguing addition to the historical and cultural re-appropriation of major narratives. This is why rewriting the history of the mother of Jesus from a Jewish perspective is an interesting one – the possibility of a different, albeit fictional, autobiographical account from the standpoint of marginalised religions. Such a biography of Mary is a mirror of the lives of every member of minority groups whose stories are appropriated and situated in “their” places by mainstream discourses.
According to Her is a book of significant contextual importance. It was written by a Jewish author in a country where the Marian cult is probably the strongest and where the story of Mary as a devout Jewess borders on blasphemy. However, Hen’s novel is full of wonderful narrative empathy, bearing no resemblance to parody or satire; it is an authentic narrative attempt to reconstruct the voice of an extraordinary Jewish woman from the first century CE.
The narrative is intriguing, told from the perspective of a simple, forsaken, skeptical, and sorrowful Jewish woman; Mariamne, the mother of Hoshi, strives to make sense of all the events that have befallen her. She is nearly a hundred years old, the siege of Masada (66-73 CE) is coming to an end, the Second Temple has been destroyed, and the Jewish world is shattered. What Mariamne has to say is important because it’s a desperate attempt to understand the personal and historical catastrophe of the Jewish world. This fictional autobiography presented as Mariamne’s monologue, is an interesting way to disrupt accepted ideologies, making it almost a political gesture to examine the fictionalised story of the mother of the Christian Messiah, who – confused and alone – reflects on her life.
Maciej Hen’s novel takes the form of Mariamne’s monologue addressed to a mysterious visitor, a Greek man, who wants to learn more about Jesus. However, we never hear from the visitor. Mariamne tells her story in a beautifully stylised narrative: her words paint a different picture of the beginnings of the world’s most powerful religion to the one we are familiar with. These beginnings are known from texts written by men, which makes the novel’s focus on a woman’s voice all the more refreshing. Maciej Hen sees this very clearly and thus re-appropriates the narrative about this historical figure in a similar way to Penelope in Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad. When asked whether it is important to reclaim this character – Mary – for the marginalised cultures, Hen responded: I don’t write on behalf of all Jews, only on my own behalf, so it’s more of my personal response to the Christian image of Mary. Mainly, I wanted to bring her down to earth, make her credible, present her realistically, which, in my opinion, makes her more sympathetic to the reader the better-known Byzantine icons or the overly sweet, pastel portrayals in western European holy pictures. As for the relationship of my Mariamne with her Jewish religion, it is indeed traditional but seasoned with a pinch of healthy skepticism, somewhat like Tevye the Dairyman. Only secondarily did I want to use her as a guide to the Jewish world of those times, as I imagine it. (Archive, interview with MH).
Reviewed by Urszula Chowaniec
ACCORDING TO HER
By Maciej Hen
Translated by Anna Blasiak
Published by Holland House Books (2022)
December 2023 #RivetingReviews titles are available to buy from bookshop.org.
Urszula Chowaniec, Ph.D., is a literary scholar specializing in women’s history. She resides in Stockholm and teaches Jewish Women’s Literature at the Paideia Folkhögskola. European Institute for Jewish Studies in Sweden. She holds a position of a Professor at the Andrzej Frycz-Modrzewski Cracow University in Poland. Urszula Chowaniec also holds the title of Research Honorary Fellow at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies at University College London.