on 5 June 2001
If there are writers more protean than Jim Crace, novelists more determined than he not ever to write the same kind of book twice, they keep well hidden. Crace's previous novels had settings as varied as these: prehistoric earth (The Gift of Stones), metropolitan Britain a few years in the future (Arcadia), and Cornwall in the 19th Century (Signals of Distress). Lest we should see a pattern developing, he has gone hiking and this, his fifth novel and already something of a modern classic, takes place in Judea, two thousand years ago. The hero is called Jesus. He is from Galilee. He is a carpenter by trade. How original.
Words lose their meanings and I suppose it is a sad reflection on the times to note that for most people now the word 'quarantine' conjures up the image of six months of doggy hell; or, just possibly, the director of Pulp Fiction. The founding meaning is gone to most, but the book reminds us that quarantine originally meant a period of 40 days and nights alone, often fasting, done with the aim of achieving some personal or spiritual goal. (The duration alone is retained in the French 'quarante'.) The supporting characters in Crace's novel are four people pursuing such a quarantine in search of relief for their respective problems ("madness, madness, cancer, infertility"). The fifth is Jesus, a young man of zealous disposition. The other four will 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:
"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."
In a lesser novel, this could become the central concern: "Does Jesus live or die?" (Forty days? No food or water? What do you think?) But Crace deals the story more skilfully, by making Jesus only a little more prominent than the other quarantiners. The true central characters are a travelling salesman, Musa, and his wife Miri. Musa is a tough man and a cruel husband, whose reputation precedes him as he lies dying of fever on the novel's first page. When Miri goes off, with rather too much haste, to dig a grave for Musa, Jesus encounters him and he mysteriously recovers.
Musa's subsequent faith in Jesus - he becomes obsessed with "the little Gally" - is matched only by his faith in himself. The scenery is littered with caves where the quarantiners stay, and Musa wastes no time in making them believe that he owns the land. He extracts rent from the afflicted four with no difficulty. Musa comes to resemble God. He fails to abide by the rules he himself sets. His vengeance is arbitrary. His power over the others rests mostly in reputation, unfulfillable threats and his forbidding appearance: at the same time he has a ridiculous unmanly voice, and his vast weight means that he cannot get up without help from someone else. He is a God, like all the others, who requires his believers for survival. But Musa is a second-rate deity, the Alan Partridge (if you will) of the first century AD: he is torn between abusing those weaker than himself and becoming obsessively worshipful of anyone in whom he detects power. Jesus becomes the object of his fascination, and it is not long into the novel when Musa (and so the others) start thinking of him as a 'healer'. The implication as the novel ends is that from the mouths of these half-dozen wanderers will be born the rudiments of Christianity. The crucial point Crace makes is that whatever Jesus actually does is not relevant... Religion, the novel seems to say, is based on belief not reason. As such it is beyond logical attack or defence.
But the underlying themes are not half the pleasures of "Quarantine". The surface is divertingly beautiful. As ever Crace makes the scene and land his own, and the cruel Judean desert becomes vivid and full of character:- "This was the wind on which to fly away. Its gusts and blusters came looking for him in the cave, bursting in like rowdy boys to shake him from unconsciousness." "The salty scrubland was a lazy and malicious host. Even lizards lifted their legs for fear of touching it too firmly." (This is the language which earlier reviews found "shallow and uninspiring.") Crace also is adept at firm characterisation, and when literary fiction suffers a dearth of really villainous characters it is a relief to have Musa, whose unremitting wrongdoing is perversely admirable.
So broad is Crace's skill, that the reader feels that the whole book could be driven by any one of the factors alone: setting, plot, characters, themes. That he manages to sustain them all at once is (not literally) miraculous. Crace may not think much of religion but he has the gift of the greatest creators of legends: he makes you believe.