I hadn’t intended to use this blog to talk about religion, because what I reckon about religion is complicated. My wife and her family are Catholic, we were married in a Catholic Church and our daughters go to Church regularly. I’m somewhere between woolly-Church-of-England and agnostic: I believe faith to be a deeply personal affair.
So when I picked up Quarantine by Jim Crace, the blurb on the back intrigued me…
Two thousand years ago four travellers enter the Judean desert to fast and pray for their lost souls. In the blistering heat and barren rocks they encounter the evil merchant Musa – madman, sadist, rapist, even a Satan – who holds them in his tyrannical power. Yet there is also another, a faint figure in the distance, fasting for forty days, a Galilean who they say has the power to work miracles…
And the opening paragraph gripped me like nothing much I’ve read in ages…
Miri’s husband was shouting in his sleep, not words that she could recognize but simple, blurting fanfares of distress. When, at last, she lit a lamp to discover what was tormenting him, she saw his tongue was black – scorched and sooty. Miri smelled the devil’s eggy dinner roasting on his breath; she heard the snapping of the devil’s kindling in his cough. She put her hand on to his chest; it was soft, damp and hot, like fresh bread. Her husband, Musa, was being baked alive. Good news.
Jim Crace is an atheist. His premise (supported by science) is that it’s impossible for a human to fast completely for 40 days without outside intervention. However, his purpose is not (like Richard Dawkins) to debunk and ridicule religious belief. Nevertheless, this novel does challenge our understanding of what happened between the forty days in the wilderness and the resurrection and its significance.
It’s a pretty bold step to depict Jesus as a character in a novel. How can the writer put words in His mouth or thoughts in His mind? However, Crace’s characterisation of ‘the young Gally’ is astonishing. He reinterprets His childhood, outlining His fears and joys, and deconstructing His relationships with the handful of people who occupy the novel with him.
But at the same time, Jesus is not the central character. He is just one of five pilgrims seeking spiritual enlightenment in separate caves in the bleak wilderness. Each, including Jesus, faces personal demons as they wrestle with solitude, starvation, and thirst, pursuing such a quarantine in search of relief for their respective problems (“madness, madness, cancer, infertility”). The others break their fast every night: a sign that they don’t really believe that god will provide for them, let alone that he will cure their maladies. Jesus is different, fiercely zealous:
His quarantine would be achieved without the comforts and temptations of clothing, food and water. 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.
The devil, or something like it, is manifest to the pilgrims in the form of the brutal sadist Musa. Close to death in the opening paragraphs, he is abandoned by his merchant partners and even his pregnant wife. Jesus happens upon his tent, wets his lips with a few drops of water, and seems to heal Musa of his fever, without consciously understanding how, before leaving for his solitude.
Musa recovers and asserts a cruel authority over the pilgrims, charging them ‘rent’ for their caves and for morsels of food. He relies on his reputation, forbidding appearance and threats to hold sway over them, and at the same time he is fascinated by Jesus and his ‘healing’ power. Musa’s unrelenting abuse is powerful indeed: his character looms over every page of the novel.
At the same time, this is an intensely visceral read. The descriptions of the natural world are tremendous. Vivid verbs, musical cadences and metaphors bring the wilderness into sharp focus, often personifying nature and its creatures without a trace of romanticism.
The clouds came down to sniff the hills, to scratch their bellies on the thorns…
The salty scrubland was a lazy and malicious host. Even lizards lifted their legs for fear of touching it too firmly.
Indeed, Jim Crace’s prose works best when he describes hardship, struggle, violence, cruelty; whether naturally inflicted by the barren, jagged landscape, or by the grotesque Musa. Within this context the resilience of humanity and indeed the power of belief is presented plainly but strongly.
Jesus’ physical degradation during his total fast is laid frankly and brutally bare. His temptations are presented in a fresh and human way, but his determined resistance is entirely spiritual as he puts his faith in his god’s hands. However, by the end of the quarantine, the clear implication is that from the mouths of these bedraggled wanderers will be born the rudiments of Christianity. This is an honest challenge to the received wisdom of the Gospels, but there’s nothing sacrilegious about it. It’s as captivating and thought-provoking a novel as I’ve read in a long time.