Desert Solitaire

Jim Crace
Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Quarantine, Jim Crace's retelling of Jesus's 40 days in the desert, is to the Bible what Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead is to Hamlet: a peripheral event made central by the force of ardent imagination. For evidence of the obscurity of this well-known tale, leaf through your Revised Standard Version to the gospels of Matthew, Mark, or Luke and note the brevity of their respective reports. Mark, the most concise, spares all of two sentences: "The Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. And he was in the wilderness 40 days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels ministered to him."

Quarantine, a finalist for last year's Booker Prize and a massive critical success in England, builds upon this nearly invisible foundation. It should be noted that Crace is an atheist and one whose previous novels have dealt with historical, mostly secular subjects. The Gift of Stones (1988) re-created life in a Stone Age village and Signals of Distress (1995), set in 1836, is the story of an American vessel, half-wrecked and forced to lay up for repairs in a small English port. Possessing such a pedigree in the historical, Crace takes on Judea circa 25 A.D. with gusto. Quarantine is loaded with vivid descriptions of desert life and lore to the extent that Judea's scrub-covered badlands almost take on the mood of a character.

In Crace's vision, Jesus is not alone on this terrain, nor is he surrounded solely by beasts and angels; instead Jesus has the company of a host of peculiar flesh-and-blood characters. Four of them have come to the desert for a quarantine--a fast of 40 days. They are Shim, a Greco-Jewish religious dilettante; a nameless, not-entirely-sane nomad with unknown desires; Aphas, an old man with a fist-sized growth in his abdomen; and Marta, a beautiful but barren wife from a Judean village. A fifth pilgrim, Jesus of Galilee, is trailing behind the cohort on the way to a row of protective caves: "And this fifth one was bare-footed, and without a staff. No water-skin, or bag of clothes. No food. A slow, painstaking figure, made thin and watery by the rising, mirage heat, as if someone had thrown a stone into the pool of air through which it walked and ripples had diluted it."

Two people already linger around the caves when the pilgrims arrive. Musa, an obese, greedy and bowelless merchant, lies ill inside his tent, abandoned by the caravan of his equally pitiless colleagues. Miri, his pregnant, long-abused wife, is out in the scrub, digging a grave and quietly rejoicing. After the first four pilgrims have retreated to their caves, the exhausted young Galilean stumbles into Musa's tent. "Allow me water, to soak these little crusts and wet my lips," Jesus says (as rendered in Crace's elegant compromise of archaic and modern English). But the dying merchant is unaffected by the plea. Had he the strength, he would banish the emaciated derelict from his tent.

This being Jesus, however, what ensues is an apparent miracle. Upon drinking some of Musa's water, Jesus sprinkles some upon Musa's cheeks and lips and pronounces a blessing: "So here, be well again." The next morning, Musa awakens revived, but callously unreformed by the renewed lease on his life. He sets out to harass the pilgrims, to charge them for the use of "his" caves, for the water they drink, for the birds and wild honey they collect. All the while, he is obsessed by the lad with the messianic powers. He bullies Shim, Aphas, and the nameless nomad to haunt Jesus's remote cave and tempt him to come out.

"Hell is other people," wrote Jean Paul Sartre in the play No Exit. The same dictum could apply to Quarantine. Temptation, as imagined by an atheist author, comes not in the form of the devil, but in that of six mortals with all-consuming troubles of their own. Each would like a cure for her illness, each pins his hopes on the "Gally"--the nickname the other pilgrims use to summon Jesus from his cave.

And yet, what makes Quarantine so utterly consuming is not the recognition of a universally familiar tale, but the surprising new details that serve to flesh it out. Miri, Marta, Aphas, Musa, Shim, and the nameless nomad are people at once convincingly historical and immediately human, and Crace addresses their banal comings and goings with beautiful compassion. As a momentous struggle murmurs in the background, we observe Miri setting up a loom to weave a birth mat; the nomad trapping a bird; Musa plotting a get-rich-quick scheme; and Marta hiding in the bushes at dawn, convulsing from a spoilt meal.

Having selected such a sparsely told tale, Crace has mostly managed to avoid schisms between the needs of his narrative and the standard truths of the good book--though near the end of Quarantine the author conceives of an unorthodoxy so great as to strike many as apostasy. Here, one can't help but recall The Last Temptation of Christ and Kazantzakis's much quoted prologue: "This book is not a biography; it is a confession of every man who struggles." Ultimately, Quarantine carries a similar message. Through his strangely effective mixture of skepticism and theism, Crace convinces us that Jesus is at once human and incontestably divine--an act of real theological bravado for an atheist, or anyone else.

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