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A Response to Jim Crace's Quarantine
by Arthur Paul Patterson

Quarantine book coverSEAN, 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.

desertJim 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 disappoint them.

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.

QuoteMiri 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.



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Crace, Jim. Quarantine. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1999. 256 pages.

You can respond to the author here (responses may be posted ).

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