Quarantine, by Jim Crace
Jim Crace is one of those authors whose books I’d been vaguely aware of for years without ever actually reading any of them. It’s curious how that can happen. I wonder how many great writers, writers I’d love, I know of but have never read. All too many I suspect.
That’s no longer an issue with Jim Crace. Quarantine is a deft and subtle book which takes a premise that really couldn’t appeal to me personally much less and weaves around it a disquieting but highly satisfying story of myth, faith and the power of narrative.
Here’s the opening paragraph:
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.
Musa is a merchant. He is rich and highly successful, but little loved. He is a master of the marketplace – a skilled storyteller and bargainer with a shrewd instinct for the fears and desires of others. He is also though obese, often petty and prone to violent rages. He beats his wife. When he falls sick his uncles and cousins are quick to leave him in the wilderness. They leave Miri with him to take care of him while he dies. They take his goods and promise her that they’ll pick her up on their return journey. It seems unlikely that they shall.
Miri digs a grave for Musa with her hands on a plain near some caves. She does so gladly because his death promises her freedom. As she digs though four people arrive, each separately, and each takes residence in one of the caves. They are each on quarantine.
A quarantine here is a ritual 40 day fast in the wilderness. During the quarantine nothing may be eaten or drunk during daylight hours. Those on quarantine spend their time in meditation and prayer. Each of the four has their own reason for seeking out solitude.
Aphas is an old man dying from cancer and hoping for a cure. Marta believes herself barren and wishes to be blessed with fertility.
A hundred times and more, she’d done her best to fend off with prayers and lies the monthly rebuff of her periods. Now she only had till harvest to conceive. Then, her husband said, he would divorce her. The law allowed him to. The law demanded that he should, in fact. After ten years of barrenness a man could take another wife. ‘You don’t cast seed on sour land,’ he said. He had a right to heirs. It was a woman’s religious duty to provide and bring up children. He’d had to divorce his first wife, because she’d failed to conceive. Marta had failed as well. So Thaniel would have to turn her out and look elsewhere.
Of course it was regrettable and harsh, he said, but he could hardly blame himself. Not twice. He’d marry ‘Lisha’s daughter. She was youg. Her father owned some land adjacent to his own. The prospect was a cheerful one. And sensible.
Shim is a Greek with pretentions of holiness. The fourth is a Badu – a tribesman who may be deaf and who in any event speaks no language the others are familiar with.
Meanwhile, a fifth traveller is coming to do his quarantine. As he travels he comes across Musa’s tent. He asks for water, but Musa is in no position to respond. The traveller takes the water and out of guilt at his theft gives a small blessing to Musa who has woken and is objecting to his property being taken without recompense.
That fifth traveller is a young Galilean named Jesus. He has come determined to take no food or water at all in his forty days. He has come to find god. He chooses a cave more secluded than the others – one that is on a slope that is dangerous even to approach. He expects that god will bring him sustenance if he requires it.
With this Crace’s stage is set. When Musa recovers (to his wife’s great disappointment) he believes it was because of the Galilean’s touch. Finding himself abandoned and with his trade goods taken by his departed caravan he determines to make a profit from each of Aphas, Marta, Shim and the Badu. He determines too to lure out the Galilean from his cave that none can reach.
Everyone then has something that they want. Musa wants to make money and force the others to help carry him back to civilisation. Miri wants to be free, though has no prospect of getting her wish. As for the others, nobody goes to live forty days in a cave without serious cause.
The landscape is barren and unforgiving. It is harsh scrub with little to eat or drink. By day it is searingly hot and by night it is bitterly cold. It is a landscape devoid of life upon which those present project their own dreams and desires. In truth what it is is nothing. A derelict waste upon which they create meaning because it offers none.
Jesus here is a holy fool. He is still very young and often thinks about how everyone will treat him differently when he goes back blessed by god. He is utterly impractical. He interprets everything in the light of his belief. When Musa calls in the mornings for him to come out of his cave he hears it as the voice of the devil come to tempt him.
In a sense Musa is like the devil. He’s a tempter. He sees what men desire and offers it to them but for his own betterment. He is rich and gluttonous and lustful. Jesus by contrast is barely of this world and less so each day he goes without food and water.
There’s an element then of Manichean conflict. The difficulty is though that though Jesus believes Musa to be the devil he’s wrong. Musa is just a man. Musa believes Jesus healed him, but he doesn’t remember what happened clearly and there’s no particular evidence that he’s right. Each of them has taken chance events and from them formed a narrative which places them as its central figure.
What’s happening here is the birth of myth. Musa persuades the others that Jesus is holy. Only Shim resists out of his own desire to be the only holy man present and he is bullied by Musa into submission. Musa is utterly selfish, but he is also when he wishes charming and he soon has everyone (except the unreachable Jesus) listening to his stories and his glib lies which perhaps even he believes as he tells them.
It’s possible to read a religious interpretation to this novel. It’s possible to read it as showing a Jesus who through his quarantine really does become more than human. It’s possible.
It’s a stretch though. Yes, people have visions of Jesus but they do so while exhausted, asleep or where they can’t make out what they’re seeing properly. Musa is described in serpentine terms but he has perfectly explicable reasons for being there and seems very much of this world. Miracles perhaps occur, but every one of them can be explained by other means.
These are superstitious people. Musa’s illness is explained by him having slept on his back with his mouth uncovered, so letting a devil climb in to take residence in his ribcage. The Badu is able to survive in the wilderness unaided and shows signs of using reason to investigate his world (at one point he takes someone’s pulse, but they have no idea why), but everyone disregards him as mad. There is no scientific understanding here.
On their first night in their caves each traveller hears what they believe to be vicious animals, bandits, murderers outside their caves but it’s just the wind in the bushes and their imaginations in the frightening dark. They create small myths that vanish in the morning, and together in the daylight they create greater myths born equally of ignorance and their own secret fears and hopes.
What perhaps most impresses me with this novel is that although it’s philosophically dense it’s all wrapped in an excellent story. The characters are rounded and well realised (some more than others, but none stuck out to me as unconvincing). Their conflicts are interesting and although Musa is a monster he’s an explicable monster. He’s human. For all the talk of god, of devils and messiahs the sadness and success of the novel is that they’re all human. They just don’t always see it in each other.
I would never ordinarily have read a book about Jesus, historical or otherwise. I’ve never previously read Jim Crace and wasn’t really familiar with his work. All that means that without Kerry’s excellent review here at Hungry like the Woolf I wouldn’t have discovered this novel. I’m glad I did. Thanks Kerry.
For those interested in reading more about Crace, Kevin of Kevinfromcanada and John Self of The Asylum both reviewed his book All that Follows, here and here. There’s also a fascinating interview with Crace by John Self over at The Asylum here.