Quarantine by Jim Crace

INDEPENDENT                                           14 June 1997

(Viking £16.99)

At the start of Jim Grace’s new novel, five travellers are making their way through the Judean wilderness,  preparing to spend forty days in seclusion, fasting and prayer.  Four of them plan to break their fasts each dusk.   The fifth, who remains apart, intends to maintain a total abstinence during the entire quarantine period.

Quarantine is a novel with two distinct strands.  The first – and by far the most successful – concerns the four fictional travellers:  Marta, a young woman desperate for a child after ten years of barrenness;  Aphas, an elderly man hoping for a miracle cure for his cancer;  Shim, a fair-haired Gentile searching for inner peace;   and a mysterious, mute Badu.   The second strand concerns the fifth traveller, Jesus, who, according to Christian tradition, spent forty days in the desert at the start of his ministry.   That Crace takes a different view is clear from the epigraph which authoritatively states that no human body could last for more than thirty days without food and drink.

Nevertheless, Crace sticks to the gospel account in several respects.   His Jesus is tempted by Satan, albeit in the very human shape of Musa, a merchant who is travelling to Jericho. Deemed to be suffering from an incurable fever, he is left for dead by his relations, along with Miri, his pregnant wife, only to be revived by a stray touch from Jesus. Crace allows Jesus no sense of his own divinity (he considers himself not the Son of God in his own right but His nephew by dint of his race) and implies throughout that faith (or, more accurately, credulity) is in the heart of the believer.  He deliberately courts ambiguity in his description of Jesus expelling ‘the devil’s air’ from Musa’s  chest,  leaving  the  reader to separate metaphor  from reality.

Musa’s recovery provides the motor of the book… even in writing as consistently accomplished as this, the Devil has all the best prose.  He is as close to pure evil as is possible in Crace’s humanistic scheme,  tyrannising his fellow travellers, claiming property rights over the common land, turning everything into money – even the story of his own healing.  He is the personification of  materialism and yet is perversely drawn towards virtue.  It is he who leads the others in the quest for Jesus.

Here, as in the earlier Continent, Crace’s landscape painting is magnificent.  His imagery, whether comparing the moon to ‘the thinnest melon slice, hardbacked, translucent, colourless’ or recounting the effects of fasting which cause Jesus’ teeth to ‘become as loose as date stones’, is masterly. As a recreation of an ancient culture and an expansion of a biblical story, Quarantine is worthy to stand beside Four Wise Men, Michei Tournier’s classic account of the Journey of the Magi.

Crace’s imagination falters only when it comes to Jesus.  It is significant that the other characters usually see Jesus at a distance or through a heat-haze, since the author himself fails to bring him into full focus.  Overall, this Jesus seems to be a cross between one of Dostoyevsky’s holy fools and a sixties drop-out whose primary motivation is to shock his parents.   He is given some amusingly human characteristics, such as clumsiness and dirty nails, and a relationship with his brothers reminiscent of Joseph of the coat of many colours.  What he isn’t given is any autonomous inner life.  When he envisages his future, it is always in terms of conventional biblical imagery such as bread or the Good Shepherd or actions which the gospel Jesus performed, like the Cleansing of the Temple.   This militates against the revisionist portrait in the novel as a whole.

Unlike Kazantzakis’ The Last Temptation of Christ, which uses an alternative temptation to explore faith, Crace uses one to explore credulity and the result cannot but be reductive. Irrespective of religious truth, there is bound to be an artistic diminution when Jesus is turned into a priggish would-be rebel with a weak bladder nicknamed Gally and the Devil  is domesticated.  Nevertheless, the context in which their encounter takes  place  provides  ample compensatory pleasures.    Crace’s powers of description are as awesome as the landscape which he evokes.  And although the reader, like the traveller, may fail to find spiritual enlightenment, he leaves his Quarantine intellectually stimulated and imaginatively enriched.