Only the crazy make it
- The Pesthouse by Jim Crace
Picador, 309 pp, £16.99, March 2007, ISBN 978 0 330 44562 7
In Jim Crace’s most celebrated novel, Quarantine, seven strangers spend a month together – or if not exactly together, then in close proximity to one another – in the Judaean desert. Four of them have come to spend forty days in fasting and contemplation in the hope of a miracle: an old stonemason from Jerusalem, dying of cancer; a woman who thinks she is unable to conceive, just like her husband’s previous wife; a young man looking for something he can’t quite name, something more than a meeting with God, something beyond enlightenment; a ‘badu’, a wild man from the deserts to the south, who the others think is mad but turns out instead to be deaf. Two of the seven are there not by choice: a merchant who was abandoned by the rest of his caravan after falling ill, and his pregnant wife. The last of them is ‘a traveller called Jesus, from the cooler, farming valleys in the north, a Galilean’.
It’s a bold premise, in principle off-putting both to Christians and the rest of us, threatening sacrilege, on the one hand, and religiosity on the other. But with remarkable care and skill, Crace constructs a haunting story that refuses to commit to any one world-view: the ‘facts’ in the novel are unimpeachable; readers, like the characters, can interpret them as they wish. Musa, the sick merchant, lies in his tent, apparently dying. Miri, his wife, assuming – and secretly hoping – that the end has come, climbs into the hills to dig his grave. While she is gone, Jesus comes to their tent and helps himself to some of their water. Before going on his way, he lays his hands on the sick man’s chest and presses ‘so that the devil’s air expressed itself’, then gives him some water and blesses him. Miri returns to the tent to find her husband recovered. Whether or not Musa has been healed by Jesus is an open question. Musa believes he has, but it may be a coincidence: this is hardly evidence-based medicine. And even if Jesus is responsible, it needn’t be a miracle; the water and chest compression may have helped – in a godless, biological, rationally explicable way.
Divine or not, Crace’s Jesus is an elusive, unworldly figure, keeping himself apart from the others in his inaccessible cave, without clothes, food or water (the drink he has in Musa’s tent is his last). He mortifies his flesh. Musa, who soon recovers his swagger, is his opposite, a man of monstrous appetite and aggression, a wife-beater, so fat he can barely walk, committed to stripping the quarantiners of their property and having sex with Marta, the ‘barren’ woman, with or without her consent. His first act on recovering from his fever is to beat a sick donkey to death: ‘Was this exuberance or brutishness? He knocked her top front teeth into her mouth. They cracked out of her gums like stones from apricots.’ You can’t help wondering if he’s the devil – he spends several days trying to tempt Jesus from his cave – but then you recast the question: with men like this, what need is there for devils?
In many ways Quarantine appears to be asking to be read as a parable – the biblical setting, the extremes of character – but it isn’t one. Parables, however ambiguous they may turn out to be, tend to make a point: ‘He that soweth the good seed is the Son of man; the field is the world; the good seed are the children of the kingdom; but the tares are the children of the wicked one’ etc. And Quarantine, a discomfiting novel on so many levels, doesn’t have a moral, and leaves you wondering what the lesson is. One answer is that life isn’t a parable. Musa is p0ssessed by a destructive desire to consume the world, Jesus by a self-destructive desire to repudiate it. But between these two extremes, in the wide wilderness between the saint and the devil, the other five characters need to negotiate an acceptable, or at least tolerable, way to live and coexist.