'Quarantine' gives a new twist to one of the central episodes in Jesus' life: His ordeal in the wilderness.

By Gary Kamiya
Published April 10, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

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 a key moment in Jesus' life. Crace's original spin on the story is to focus not primarily on Jesus, but 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 accordance 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.

The little corner of a world Crace creates is uncannily convincing. He paints deeply realized, if condensed, portraits of Miri, Marta and Musa, and sketches the garrulous Shim and self-pitying Aphas with quick, telling strokes. The narrow focus of the novel -- 30 days in a rocky wilderness -- doesn't allow for a broad perspective, but "Quarantine" displays a sure grasp of its historical milieu: the subjugated plight of women, the charged question of how Jews should regard the Romans, the wandering lives of merchants. Beneath the apparent simplicity of Crace's tale, you sense a long labor of the imagination.

Crace's prose is equally deceptive. At first, it appears to be merely terse and breezy, but further reading reveals telling subtleties. Crace mostly writes in a free indirect speech that reflects his characters' thoughts, but he occasionally adopts an omniscient voice whose informality recalls both a storyteller and a 19th century narrator. In describing Jesus' ordeal, he writes, "Time was slow, of course"; in another place, he writes, "Perhaps it was a blessing that Jesus's spirit fell apart before his body did." In still another, we find, "Here was a man who was in the mood to divine grand meanings in the simplest acts. There'd be no god without such men, prepared to make the little cause responsible for large effects." We sense someone unknown but concrete speaking here, spinning a yarn, making editorial comments, and this gives the whole story a quality at once handmade and portentous -- like a parable told by someone not sure of its meaning.

When he writes about Jesus, Crace's tough, self-assured sentences rises to the level of poetry. "Once or twice, immersed in reveries of light and work and wood, he had neared and glimpsed the large and inexplicable itself. To be alive amongst the sawdust and the stars was beyond understanding; to be this person, in this place, and now. Even to contemplate that puzzle was to stray too far from safer paths, to sweat and shiver in that hollow room which has no doors or walls, where Never End and Never Start hold their invisible debate ... Faith or dismay, that was the choice."

Crace's Jesus is as deeply imagined as his other characters, but what is being imagined is much wilder and stranger and more unsettling. "Here was a man who'd been a simple-hearted child, much loved and loving, nervous and obedient; quick to listen, happy to believe whatever he was told." As an adolescent, his intense relationship with god deepened: "When Jesus prayed, there came a point where the words were speaking him ... there were occasions, more mystifying, feverish and blissful, when the language was unknown, a tripping, spittle-basted tongue, plosive and percussive and high-pitched. Then, if he were left undisturbed for long enough with these wild rhapsodies, he might feel his spirit soften and dissolve at once."

Aside from such eloquent descriptions of religious fervor (by contrast, Mailer's Jesus sounds like a Hallmark Card) Crace's Jesus offers no real surprises -- he is presented in straightforward, convincing terms as a simple, intensely devout young man who during his quarantine suffers, worries, grows weak and finally triumphs over his own demons. About the most idiosyncratic psychological speculation Crace allows himself is to write: "He could not quite admit it to himself but Jesus took more courage from the thought of surprising his parents than he took from satisfying god."

The surprises in "Quarantine" are external -- and the biggest of them is that Jesus dies. Crace prefaces his novel with a quotation from a book titled "The Limits of Mortality," which states that it is physically impossible for any human to totally fast -- that is, neither eat nor drink -- for 40 days. Pushed to his limit by starvation, Jesus is blown during a storm off the cliff. But "Quarantine" remains ambiguous to the last -- for after his death several of the characters see, or dream, or think they see, Jesus. The logic of Crace's prose makes the most likely interpretation that Jesus did indeed rise from the dead, or that his soul separated from his body and took flesh, but it is also possible that the characters are imagining things. In any case, his death sets in motion a major transformation, including the liberation of several characters.

In one sense, "Quarantine" simply takes the ambiguity and controversy that has always surrounded Jesus' death and resurrection and moved it up: Instead of Jesus dying and possibly being reborn after the crucifixion, he dies and is possibly reborn after his ordeal in the wilderness. This is an ingenious idea. After all, it was only after the wilderness that Jesus began his public ministry, and so it might make sense that Jesus assumed his divinity after dying. Alternatively, if one opts for the non-supernatural reading, it is attractive to imagine that the legend of Jesus began after his death in the wilderness -- a legend spread by none other than Musa.

Neither of these alternatives, of course, quite fit the biblical template. The first reading runs afoul of the fact that Jesus can only die once -- otherwise he would not be fully human. To entertain the idea that Jesus died in the wilderness and was reborn is heretical, because it makes Christianity's central event, the crucifixion, a mere rerun. As for the second, it even more obviously subverts scripture: Jesus was no god at all, but a dying man who was blown off a cliff and about whom a lot of exaggerated stories were afterwards told.

But does it matter whether a novel about Jesus conforms, at least at the most rudimentary level, to the story told in the Bible? At some aesthetically dubious but undeniable level, it does -- and you don't have to be a believer to think so. The fact is that readers bring such a weight of knowledge and expectation to the subject of Jesus that rewriting his story without tying up the loose ends leads to distracting questions. Rewriting the Bible is like writing a mystery story, or working out the comic-book logistics of when Clark Kent was able to get to that phone booth -- "close" isn't good enough. The whole thing has to track, or else it isn't satisfying. From this perspective, Crace's version is ingenious, but not ingenious enough. The extra-literary fact of the Bible story is so huge that it overwhelms even his audacious fiction. At times, reading "Quarantine," you wish Crace could just get the hell out of the Bible altogether and cut loose -- his obviously major powers are so controlled, so constrained by the effort of dealing with not just a story but The Story.

Finally, there is the problem of ambiguity. The fact that Crace doesn't show his hand on the issue of Jesus' divinity creates an endless binary choice for the reader: Choose divinity and the entire book means one thing; choose humanity and it means another. There is something frustrating about this, a kind of aesthetic murkiness that clashes oddly with the surpassing clarity of Crace's prose and thought.

Having said that, however, one must give Crace credit for creating a world of almost shocking vividness -- and for cutting through the haze of legend to paint a sharp and moving portrait of a man who long ago walked into the mountains to do battle with God, the devil and himself.

Gary Kamiya

Gary Kamiya is a Salon contributing writer.

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