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For a novelist, the figure of Jesus looms like Mount Everest: at once irresistible and daunting. To write about Jesus one must walk a shuddering tightrope between humanity and divinity. Only mystics, true believers or madmen would embark on that journey without trepidation.
The problem is that at some point the novelist must show his hand: either affirm the divinity of Jesus, in which case his work may feel like a penetrating illustration of the scriptures; or deny it, with the danger that his work may feel merely reactive. He can also, of course, blur the issue, avoid answering the question -- but this solution, too, rarely satisfies. Religion can't tolerate the same kind of ambiguity that literature does. Quarantine, by British novelist Jim Crace, is a tour de force of historical and psychological realism that offers an ingenious variation on a key episode in Christian myth -- but it does not entirely succeed in overcoming these problems.
With Quarantine, Crace -- whose earlier novels include Arcadia, Continent and Signals of Distress -- has joined the list of illustrious writers, including Dostoevski, Kazantzakis and Mailer, who have dared to tackle this blindingly unportrayable figure. While Kazantzakis, with passionate ambition, recounted Jesus' entire adult life as a second-to-second struggle between his Godhead and his humanity, and Mailer, in his embarrassingly prosaic first-person effort, covered everything from Jesus' childhood to his crucifixion, Crace has chosen to tell a much smaller story, and in a much more indirect way. In Quarantine, Jesus is just one of seven characters -- and not the central one. Crace's Jesus isn't as peripheral as Hamlet in Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, but Quarantine shares that work's intentionally eccentric perspective. This sidelong approach breathes fresh life into a story so vast and familiar it can barely be seen anymore -- but it also diminishes its scope. Quarantine is flawlessly executed, but it seems more like a short story than a novel.
Crace has chosen as his subject Jesus' 40-day "quarantine" in the wilderness, described in Matthew 4:1-11: "Then was Jesus led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tested by the devil." An agonizing trial in which he must fend off the three temptations offered by the devil, it is key moment in Jesus' life. Crace's original spin on the story is to focus not primarily on Jesus, t on six people who find themselves sharing the same barren stretch of mountains near the Dead Sea with him. Of these the most important is a loathsome character named Musa, a merchant who, along with his downtrodden, pregnant wife, Miri, has been traveling with a trading caravan through the wilderness.
Miri and Musa are joined in the wilderness by five people, each traveling alone, each undertaking a quarantine in hopes of miracles or enlightenment. The first is a bedouin or "badu," a strange, voiceless creature who seems little more than an animal. The second, Shim, is a cosmopolitan Gentile from the north, perhaps a Greek, who has come to the desert in search of some nameless wisdom. The third is an older Jew named Aphas, who is afflicted with a cancerous tumor in his side that is killing him. The fourth, Marta, is a childless married woman who has come to the desert in hopes that she will miraculously conceive. Her husband, in ccordance with Jewish law, has told her he will divorce her if she does not conceive by harvest.
"The fifth, a male, was far younger than he might have seemed from a distance," writes Crace. "Not much more than an adolescent, then ... He was a traveller called Jesus, from the cooler, farming valleys in the north, a Galilean, and not one used to deprivations of this kind ... He'd put his trust in god, as young men do. He would encounter god or die, that was the nose and tail of it. That's why he'd come. To talk directly to his god. To let his god provide the water and the food. Or let the devil do its work. It would be a test for all three of them."
When the story opens, Musa has been struck down by a fever and is near death. His fellow traders abandon him, taking his goods and leaving him with only a few goats, his money and Miri -- who prays for the death of the fat, brutal sensualist. In search of shelter and sustenance before his quarantine begins, Jesus is about to borrow some refreshment from Musa's apparently unoccupied tent when he hears a sound from Musa, who has briefly awakened from his fever sleep. He presses the "devil's air" out of the dying man's chest, shakes water over his face and says, "So, here, be well again" -- "a common greeting for the sick." Jesus leaves to begin his fast.
Jesus' simple act sets in motion a plot that appears, at first, to be simply an ironic subversion of the orthodox Jesus story. Possibly thanks to Jesus' healing touch -- on this point, and all others that involve divinity, Crace is carefully ambiguous -- Musa comes back to life, but good does not ensue. He savagely beats his donkey to death, hectors his wife and hits upon a deceitful plan to bilk his fellow wilderness-dwellers: He tells them that he is the owner of the land and that they owe him rent. He also begins to think of ways to achieve his lustful designs upon the voluptuous Marta.
From this point on, Quarantine mingles Musa's story, and to a lesser degree those of the pilgrims he manipulates, with the separate but related story of Jesus' ordeal. The impression that Crace's main aim is ironic is strengthened by the ways the stories overlap: When Shim and Aphas fling Musa's dead donkey off a cliff, for example, it almost hits Jesus, who is standing outside his cave down below looking for a sign from god. And the temptations Jesus must endure are not given by the devil, as in the Gospels, but are leather bags of food and water lowered by Musa, who shouts down to his "friend" and "healer" to come up and heal the others. Above all, there are Musa's evil deeds, culminating in his rape of Marta. But by the end of the story, the ironies of Crace's tale are outmatched by affirmation -- perhaps an affirmation of faith, perhaps merely of humanity, but affirmation nonetheless.
"Stunning . . . extraordinary . . . One of the freshest and most inventive novelistic uses of biblical material I have read."—Minneapolis Star Tribune
"A spiritual mystery of the best kind . . . Crace is a master at creating a convincing landscape out of evocative, earthy details . . . The creation of an ambitious imagination . . . A literary miracle."—USA Today
"A superb book . . . It succeeds thanks to Crace's potent, imaginative rendering of the characters and the setting, and because of its distinctive, lilting language."—Time Out New York
"Immensely impressive . . . This novel is a high-wire act, a tour de force, a garment expertly tailored from materials of the highest quality."—Bruce Bawer, The Washington Post Book World
Jim Crace: Yes, please be patient. This is my first encounter with the Net. I'm a Luddite and don't plan on being online at home in England until my kids have fled the roost.
Jim Crace: Quarantine is an attempt to put the Christian religion under some hard-nosed scientific scrutiny. I take an established fact (that nobody could fast for 40 days without food and drink -- they'd die after four days) and place it at the center of the Bible story in which Jesus goes into the wilderness to fast for 40 days. So it's science versus God.
Jim Crace: It's always difficult writing about such a celebrated figure. Even for me -- and I'm an atheist -- just writing his name is to take on a whole load of religious and historical baggage. It helps that most of the conventional images of Christ present him as some kind of blond Scandinavian superman. I simply reminded myself that Jesus was a Palestinian Jew. He would have been swarthy and black haired. I also asked myself what kind of young man would rather spend time in prayer than in the company of his friends. An inward-looking, shy person, someone who prefers his own company to the crowd, a man who is to some extent dysfunctional. Finally, I avoided the name Jesus, and gave Christ a nickname, Gally (the Galilean). That freed up my imagination. Then I let the narrative take over.
Jim Crace: My last answer covers most of your question. But I want to say that actually QUARANTINE was not intended to be a book about Christ at all. It was mostly going to be about the four other travelers who are in the wilderness at the same time as him. I'd refer to Christ's presence in a paragraph or two to give the novel some religious and historical provenance, and then Jesus would slip out of the narrative. But as I wrote, he elbowed his way into the story. Christian readers in Britain have said that this happened because the Grace of God was standing at my shoulder as I wrote. They're wrong. It was the imp of storytelling at my shoulder. That imp can pull the oddest tricks.
Jim Crace: You're quite correct, Iggy. I like to invent places. It's fun. Big lies are always better than small ones. Most novelists choose real settings because they want to locate their readers, to give them the shock of recognition. I prefer to dislocate my readers, to take an issue that is contemporary and place it in a new context. THE GIFT OF STONES, for example, deals with the issue of how a community that loses the dignity of work can reinvent itself. It was prompted by my experience of Birmingham in the 1980s, but I set it at the end of the Stone Age. I have written two novels set in modern times, ARCADIA and CONTINENT. The next novel, BEING DEAD, is set slightly in the future.
Jim Crace: I half expected a Christian fatwa. But I had not realized how hard it is to offend a Christian. In fact, unlike the Muslim religion, the Christian religion has always relished doubters and embraced sinners. British Christians have, so far, greeted the novel as if it is a modern scripture that underscores their beliefs rather than undermines them. I am surprised. And somewhat relieved.
Jim Crace: I'm very happy that you liked the book, Yolanda. Of course, nobody could spend a year writing on such a subject and not be affected by it. What it has done is to strengthen my atheism by making it more spiritual. I used to present my atheism as the absence of belief, a bleak and hollow thing. But now I recognize that transcendence and mysticism are not incompatible with the nonexistence of God. The power of nature and natural forces seem more worthy of our awe than the simplistic explanations of the universe dished up by religion. Atheists are the new mystics.
Jim Crace: I have. Duty calls. Norman Mailer has written five or six of the great postwar American books. We owe him respect. But his GOSPEL was not his best. He managed to turn wine into water. A miracle of writing in reverse.
Jim Crace: Novels transform before your eyes as you write them. That's the joy of fiction for me. I had intended to write a book in which all the characters were troubled, living on the edge. I was interested in this subject after I had visited a hostel of 149 bedrooms near my home where mental patients were housed. I wanted to find a setting in which I could dislocate their experience. Someone sent me a postcard of the cave near Jericho where Jesus passed his 40 days. I noticed that the cliff was full of caves. One hundred and forty-nine caves at least. It was an ancient version of the hostel I had visited. That was the starting point. Then I let the story fly.
Jim Crace: My favorite character is the woman, Miri. She isn't beautiful. She isn't powerful. She isn't smooth tongued. In fact, she's nothing like a Hollywood heroine. But she is strong.
Jim Crace: About a year. I'm a lazy writer. (What's the hurry? My readers can only tolerate about one book every three years from me.)
Jim Crace: My novels are always a surprise to me. I wonder who wrote them. People who meet me can't believe that I produced the books. I'm not sufficiently intellectual or well informed. They've fallen into the trap of believing that writers must be like their books. But what is most interesting for me is how writers are different from their books. That's because a novel when it's truly underway has a wilful spirit of its own. In the case of QUARANTINE, the spirit wouldn't let me kill Jesus off entirely as I had planned. That wasn't ambiguous enough. And stories love ambiguity.
Jim Crace: I didn't read the Bible. I only read those few verses that dealt with the wilderness days. I did very little research. I visited Judea for a few weeks in the desert, but mostly because I fancied the trip, not to do research. I needed to see the landscape so that I could tell convincing lies about it. I don't like awkward facts to get in the way of the narrative.
Jim Crace: I pretend that I'm disciplined to my editor, my agent, my wife, and my children. I say that I start work in the morning as soon as I have walked the dog and that I stop, having completed 1,000 words, when the children return from school. The truth is that I'm easily distracted, particularly in the early chapters of a novel. I waste days sitting in the garden, pretending to solve some problem with the narrative. I do too many crosswords and ride off on my bike for no good reason. But when the book gets some wind in its sails then I become genuinely hardworking. And everybody who knows me complains that I become impossibly remote and preoccupied.
Jim Crace: I"m writing a novel called BEING DEAD. A cheerful little title. It's the logical book to write after QUARANTINE. It is an optimistic romance that deals with the finality of death. There is no god. There is no paradise, or judgement day, or any eternity. We draw our last breaths and that's the end. The novel tries to make some sense of that bleak fact.
Jim Crace: I had an important story on a racially sensitive issue spiked by an editor of The Sunday Times who hadn't got the brains or humanity to know better. I left journalism on principle, but my first novel, CONTINENT, had just been published and was earning lots of cash. Would I have been so principled if I hadn't got the cash? I no longer do any journalism. I don't miss the work, but I do miss the colleagues, especially the photographers.
Jim Crace: Thanks, Bethany. I have been more interested in the fate of communities than the fate of individuals. And the tone of my books tends to be moralistic rather than cynical or ironic in the English manner. If there is a shared "message" in any of my books it is 1) that traders, merchants, and capitalists do more harm than good; and that 2) all people are lovable despite their blemishes. That's a mild expression of something I feel passionately.
Jim Crace: Intentional. I wanted to use the same heightened language of the Bible. But I wanted my prose to have more clarity.
Jim Crace: I spend all day writing fiction, so I tend to avoid novels as personal reading. I like writing about the natural world. At the moment the Americans are the best at this. I read Barry Lopez, Stephen J. Gould, E. O. Wilson, and John McPhee. My all-time favorite is THE SONG OF THE DODO by David Quammen, first published in 1987. It's an adventure in island biodiversity. And it's immensely diverting and exciting. I"d sacrifice a couple of my novels just to have written a book half as good as DODO. As for English writers you won't have heard of? I'm not very up to date. But I do enjoy Will Self for his uncompromising inventiveness.
Jim Crace: I'd love to be an old-fashioned didactic and political writer like Orwell. But, unfortunately, that's not the hand I've been dealt. When I write polemically it always sounds like a leaflet. So I'm stuck with my sub-Magic Realism. That doesn't mean that my beliefs are sidelined. It's literature that is the sideline. I lead an active political life (on the sentimental left). It just doesn't show up in the novels.
Jim Crace: I'm a hard-line scientific atheist. I believe that the universe was created and is controlled by natural forces, and that there is no divine power. But that does not mean that I do not have a moral code or that I am unable to respond to the startling diversity of the planet. I just do it without the help of God, that's all.
Jim Crace: Writing novels is my only job. But it's hardly a full-time occupation. I started writing as a journalist and became relatively well known. That meant that it was easy for me to get a contract to write a novel when I wanted to. Most people don't have that luck. But I am not a cynic about the publishing industry. I do believe that if your work has talent it will be picked up by an editor somewhere. You just have to persevere, and remember always to take the challenging and ambitious route with your writing. If you set your sights low you'll write something that is unremarkable.
Jim Crace: These things just develop in the writing. I knew that I wanted a strong woman character who was barren, as that would allow me to explore some interesting themes. And I also knew that I needed the Devil's representative. But the other characters bubbled up under their own volition. The badu, for example, is discovered to be deaf about three-quarters of the way through the book. It surprises the reader. It surprised me, too, because that is not what I had intended.
Jim Crace: None of the real Palestine is to be found in the novel, but the spirit of the country is there, I hope. The place I liked the best was the high scrubland behind Qumran. I slept out there with Izzat, my Bedouin guide. When we woke up we were surrounded by gazelles.
Jim Crace: I didn't use any biblical resources. I just looked around at those young men who lived near me in Birmingham and were involved in evangelical and charismatic Christian groups. QUARANTINE was meant to be a novel with modern as well as ancient themes.
Jim Crace: I answered this question earlier, Peter. But I think that Gally is a sweet name. It humanizes Jesus. It brings him into our universe, a young and troubled youth rather than a remote and one-dimensional icon.
Jim Crace: See the earlier answer, Oren. But remember that things do not have to researched to be thoroughly believable. Humankind is a narrative animal. Storytelling is in our genes. I didn't have to go to Palestine. My landscape was invented in a converted garage in the scruffy suburb of Moseley in Birmingham, England. The trick with telling believable lies is to use convincing vocabulary with confidence.
Jim Crace: I'd suggest that he went up onto the roof of the Temple and simply flapped his hands.
Jim Crace: Much more fun than I'd expected -- thanks mostly to the generous comments that you have made and to the intelligent questions. Many thanks, and goodnight.
Crace's compelling rendition of the forty-day "quarantine" is a first-rate work of literature, a repository of poetry, powerful images, and gritty realism. Furthermore, it is also a bold philosophical statement, an unconventional and sometimes shocking recasting of the nebulous, rumor-shrouded events that have molded and influenced much of the world's character and history for the past two thousand years.
1. Crace uses the following epigraph from The Limits of Mortality at the beginning of the book: "An ordinary man of average weight and fitness embarking on a total fast-that is, a fast during which he refuses both his food and drink-could not expect to live for more than thirty days, nor to be conscious for more than twenty-five. For him, the forty days of fasting described in religious texts would not be achievable -- except with divine help, of course. History, however, does not record an intervention of that kind, and medicine opposes it." Why do you think Crace uses this for an epigraph, and what does this tell us about his intentions?
2. "The scrubland welcomed Miri"(p.8). By what means does Crace give the landscape a character, and what sort of character is it? Who thrives in this landscape; what human characteristics does it favor? What does the landscape's welcoming of Miri tell us about Miri herself? Do you feel that the author loves, hates, or fears the desert? What words and terms does he use to describe the landscape's peculiar sensuality?
3. Why does Crace use "quarantine" as a term for the traditional forty-day fast period, and why do you think he has chosen it as the title for his book?
4. Telling of Jesus' past, the narrator says, "He had been standing at the window of his father's workshop and god had called his name" (p.22). Here, and in later portions of the book, does the narrator imply that this calling came purely and simply from Jesus' imagination? Why has Crace chosen not to capitalize the word "god"?
5. In Musa's tent, Jesus tells himself: "He had to leave this sick man on his own to die. Otherwise he'd never reach the cave; he'd miss the start of quarantine" (p.26). Is this decision a cowardly or selfish one on Jesus' part? Does it invalidate what he was trying to achieve by his quarantine? Does the author imply that Jesus' touch healed Musa, or that Musa would have recovered anyway?
6. What do the lives of Marta and Miri tell us about the condition of women in their culture? What was their role, and how were they regarded by the male half of the population? What is their opinion of men and marriage? In what fundamental ways do the women in this novel differ in character from the men?
7. "But Jesus had not come this far to witness only godless routines of the sun and sky and sea. He had to take each shift of light, each colouring, each shadow of a bird to be the evidence of god. He had to persuade himself, before the forty days were up, that he'd been awarded a brief view of god's kingdom" (p.81). Jesus was "a man who was in the mood to divine grand meanings in the simplest acts. There'd be no god without such men" (p.128). What do these quotations imply about the nature of Jesus as a human being? About the nature of religion as a phenomenon?
8. During Jesus' sufferings, he mistakes Musa for the devil. Is Jesus' identification of Musa as the devil possibly a correct one; that is, is Musa purely evil? In what ways does Musa resemble, or not resemble, the New Testament devil?
9. Just before he dies, Jesus hears a voice "not Jewish and not Greek" (p.192). "The voice took charge of him. It walked him to the row of distant caves." To what extent does the narrator make you believe, or disbelieve, in Jesus' supernatural inspiration?
10. Musa has a vision of Jesus after Jesus' death (pp.204-6). Is Musa changed in any substantial way after this vision? Are any of the others fundamentally changed after their quarantine? If so, in what way? Do these changes occur as a result of Jesus' presence?
11. What do you think will happen to the characters after the novel closes? What will Musa do, and what role will he have in the propagation of the "Jesus sect" and, eventually, the birth of Christianity? What role, if any, will the other quarantine participants have in it?
12. Does Crace's narrative strike you as a feasible version of the real events? In your opinion, does it contain psychological truth?
13. What is religion or the religious impulse, as Crace describes it? Is it superstition and fear, or are there other, more genuinely spiritual elements?
14. In an interview (The Guardian, June 12, 1997), Crace says that he's a "post-Dawkins scientific atheist" but that his "novels are free to express, and always do express, a different viewpoint" from his own. Would you say that this is true of Quarantine -- that the novel expresses a different viewpoint from that of pure atheism?
About the Author:
Jim Crace is the author of Continent (1986), The Gift of Stones (1988), Arcadia (1992), and Signals of Distress (1994). He has been the recipient of the Whitbread First Novel Prize, the E.M. Forster Award, and the GAP International Prize for Literature. Quarantine was short-listed for the Booker Prize and won the Whitbread Novel of the Year award. Crace's novels have been translated into fourteen languages. He lives in Birmingham, England, with his wife and two children.
Posted January 1, 2002
Quarantine is a novel of Christ's forty-day sojourn in the wilderness in which He was tempted by Satan. It resembles a fable in its construction. This tale was first told in the Bible, in the Gospels of Mark and Luke, and Matthew. Milton based Paradise Regained on Christ and His temptation. Crace's Jesus, however, is someone far different. In Quarantine, Christ seems to be more of an unlearned carpenter than someone divine; someone whose parents have reprimanded Him for His habit of piety and who has fled to the desert of Judea in a search for God and truth. Christ is not alone in the Judean wilderness; there are other quarantiners, each with his own purpose and each on his own quest. Some are determined to be cured of blindness or barrenness, while others are simply searching. Jesus chooses one of the most uncomfortable caves in the area in which to spend His forty days, and He is determined to spend them without food or water. In contrast, the wealthy merchant Musa, though suffering from an apparently terminal illness, spends his day with his pregnant wife in a lavish tent. Crace, a master at integrating his setting into the very fabric of his story, describes the desert in minute detail. This detail, which covers the flora and the fauna, the geography and the geology, is so minute, however, that many readers, (I was one) will need to keep a dictionary handy. If there are words you can't find, don't worry; this is Jim Crace writing and, just as in Being Dead, another five-star novel, words, and worlds, often exist only in the author's imagination. And ours. The story continues along the lines of a classic fable, but we feel as though we are lost in a dreamworld, in a hallucination perhaps, as the characters of Musa, his wife Miri, and her contemplative friend, Marta become symbols for the Biblical story with which most of us are familiar. Crace is a writer's writer, a true original, and this book, like his others, is never predictable. This is an author who is strange, creative and original, but always wonderful. Never a political writer, Crace is more concerned with giving us a world within a world, with detailing the landscape and the culture. In Quarantine, there is the almost obsessive description of the desert; in Arcadia, it was a produce market; in Signals of Distress, nautical matters and life in an early Victorian seaport; in Being Dead, it was, of course, death. Or rather, the process of death. Crace eschews political and topical themes and instead focuses his attention on the beginnings and endings of lives and of worlds: the remnants of the stone people, the dispossessed greengrocers, the quarantined. He writes with what Iris Murdoch calls 'crystalline' construction; a novel that is really more like a poem, introspective and artistic and thematic. He very much resembles William Golding and Signals of Distress is very reminiscent of Golding's novel, The Spire. Crace is not going to be everyone's cup of tea. But for those looking for something a little different, something that will make them think, something that is quietly profound, Crace may be just perfect.
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Posted February 23, 2011
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