MY SON, says he is suspicious of fictional accounts of the life
of Christ. I agree with him. There are considerable emotional and philosophical
agendas shadowing the Jesus of film, art or literature. That's true
of popular treatments like Godspell, Jesus Christ Superstar;
literary reconstructions like King Jesus by Robert Graves, The Last
Temptation of Christ by Nikos Kanzanzakis, and The Gospel According
to the Son by Norman Mailer, but also, the so-called assured results
of scholarship like Crossan's Jesus the Revolutionary. Treatments
of Jesus leave me wondering whose Jesus the writer is talking about?
If Jesus is a favourite with the author, he is usually the writer's
ideal person. If the writer has been repulsed by some childhood or conventional
image of Jesus, the portrait becomes an occasion for sarcasm, or iconoclasm
- an attempt to break the image held dear by readers. The gospels carve
out a portrait based on their own agendas. Matthew for instance turns
Jesus into a Moses look-a-like. We are no closer to the "real one"
no matter how you look at it. When a film or book starts from the idea
that Jesus is beyond our knowledge, a true mystery, more of a symbol
than a man, a writer has an edge over other artists. By assuming ignorance,
they are free to unbind the imagination and paint whatever picture of
Jesus comes to mind. This method is like inscribing in bold letters,
"I haven't a clue who Jesus is. The Jesus you read of in this book,
or see in this film, is a product of my creative imagination. Any resemblance
to persons living, dead, or risen is strictly coincidental." When
I get that message from an author, I read on eagerly.
Crace's recent novel, Quarantine, is just such a book. Jesus
is part of the story, he plays a significant although not a central
role. The quarantined Jesus is the symbol of healing and hope for a
group of unlikely partners on a forty day sojourn in the wilderness.
Like all readers and writers about Jesus, Crace's characters make out
of him what they want. They see him through their needs and he doesn't
Quarantine follows the madcap adventures of a group of wandering
bedouin and others. It reads like a Keystone cops episode with a sinister
twist. A fat trader, Musa, along with his pregnant wife, is left to
die in the desert by his fellow entrepreneurs. Crace, instead of saying
Musa was sick with a virus, describes his malady in very Near Eastern
parlance as a devil who was stoking a fire under his ribs. The book
is packed with idiosyncratic and geographically culturally specific
language. Miri is biding her time while Musa dies, a circumstance which
is entirely fortuitous for her despite her condition. Musa is an abusive
boor who has as much personal charisma as he does weight, and that is
a lot. He is sly, cunning, a great storyteller and thoroughly self-centered.
Crace explains how Musa has stifled his sensitive and vulnerable side
in a manner that sounds as if it were for Musa an athletic accomplishment.
his wife is skinny, seemingly at the expense of Musa's adipose nature.
Her sojourn in the desert is perhaps one of the most pleasant of all
the "quarantines." Her greatest disappointment is that a mystic-eyed
wanderer from Galilee, affectionately called "Gally", apparently
but not in actuality heals Musa of his physical illness. This healing
takes place while Jesus steals a few drops of water just before his
total abstinence fast in the wilderness. Miri is away digging the grave
for her spouse when confronted by her now healthy husband who just has
beaten a donkey to death in his rage over a few stolen drops of water.
Gally is a fifth business character in Crace's novel. He is a major
contributor to the plot but is ironically a minor character. Having
Jesus as a minor character is clever. Crace uses Gally as a foil for
his sturdy materialism. Gally is delusional, undisciplined and worthless
in the rough Near Eastern environment. His prayers and visions are meaningless
and lead him only to a premature death. Such a Christ could compete
with the most cynical modern reconstruction.
Four other characters populate the tale. Shim, a blonde-haired Greek
half Jew, who practises a form of Zen. A totally insane tongueless primitive,
a Badu villager, plays a sympathetic comic role that turns out to be
extremely wise in the long run. A dying grandfatherly figure, Apha,
with a cancerous liver but kind heart seems to mediate between the youthful
perspectives of Gally and Shim.
Marta, a barren woman seeking healing is, next to Musa, the strongest
character in the narrative. She is resourceful, graceful and unfortunately
the object of Musa's lust. Her prayers and visions are answered in extraordinary
ways through out the developments. She becomes a sister to Miri thus
fulfilling the Mary Martha symbology. She learns self-reliance as she
breaks free from her social role as the barren woman.
If you are looking for straightforward justice, a divine Jesus, or a
cosy tale with a clear meaning, Quarantine is not for you. If
the mystery of life's inequalities, the humour and naivete of traditional
beliefs, and the celebration of vulnerable humanity intrigue you, then
you'll be eager to read Crace.
If you have been affected by a book on Jesus, post your response on our
Crace, Jim. Quarantine. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1999. 256
You can respond to the author here
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