The Pesthouse 
by Jim Crace.
Picador, 309 pp., £16.99, March 2007, 978 0 330 44562 7
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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.

In an earlier novel, his second, The Gift of Stones, also set in a bleak and empty landscape in the remote past, Crace depicts a small and fragile society made up of two kinds of person, craftsmen and traders: the people who make things and the people who sell them, growing rich on the labour of others. The narrator lives in a village between a flint mine and the sea – we’re never told where we are, but something about the climate suggests this can only be England – in the last years of the Stone Age. The villagers’ livelihood is threatened by the coming of bronze. The narrator’s father lost an arm as a child, in an attack by a band of marauding horsemen. Unable to work, he has to find another role for himself in the community, and discovers a gift for storytelling. His skill aligns him, more or less unambiguously, with the craftsmen: ‘He was to truth what every stoney was to untouched flint.’ Something can be made of base materials.

In Quarantine, the ethical status of storytelling is more vexed. Miri is a talented weaver; the badu an adept trapper and hunter. Crace is precise and attentive in his descriptions of their work, one craftsman showing respect to others. But the great storyteller in the desert is Musa, who doesn’t make anything except money, who only steals, sells and destroys. His narrative skill is what makes him such a good salesman, what draws people to his wares in the marketplace. At times it can seem as if there are no limits to the new realities he can conjure with his words. He persuades the quarantiners that they must pay him rent if they wish to sleep in desert caves. He even manages to persuade them that a young man none of them has met is a miracle worker. Jesus, wasting in his cave, would be nothing without the stories Musa tells about him. Perhaps a certain moneyed self-confidence is needed before a story can be made to last.

Quarantine is written in free indirect style throughout; there is no intrusive authorial presence – unless you count Musa. Crace’s last novel, by contrast, has an ingratiating omniscient narrator. Six is a comedy of sorts, its anti-hero a cowardly actor who has had a child with every woman he has had sex with – six of them – however carefully they try to prevent it. Felix ‘Lix’ Dern lives in an anonymous Central European city, where after a twenty-year thaw totalitarianism is making a creeping return. The narrator is a neighbour – he’s always going on about ‘our city’ – if an anonymous, disembodied neighbour, with supernatural access to the details of Lix’s private life. He’s reminiscent of the narrator of The Unbearable Lightness of Being. ‘I have been thinking about Tomas for many years,’ Kundera writes. ‘But only in the light of these reflections did I see him clearly. I saw him standing at the window of his flat and looking across the courtyard at the opposite walls, not knowing what to do.’ This is the way a neighbour might catch sight of Tomas; it is not usually the way narrators talk about characters. But the conceit of narrator-as-neighbour is interesting, especially in a story set under a regime that depends for its security on its citizens’ paranoia, the constant fear that neighbours are spying and informing on one another. And let’s not forget that Musa is Jesus’ neighbour in the desert.

The political system in Crace’s new novel is not totalitarianism but anarchy. The Pesthouse returns to the terrain of The Gift of Stones and Quarantine, a vast and pitiless wasteland where merely surviving is a constant struggle. ‘Everybody died at night,’ it begins. This is not first-century Palestine, or Stone Age Britain, but America, or what used to be America, a few centuries from now:

there was nothing familiar in sight, not a single building, not a reminiscent shape, not even any cultured land, and only the footings of ancient walls and lines of metal spikes, rusted thin, as evidence that this had once been farmed many years before but now was wilderness. People had been there in better times, had lived there possibly, had died, but there was little chance that anyone would come again. People were becoming scarce. America was emptying.

We’re never told how the industrial age came to an end; none of the characters knows. Literacy is one of the many technologies that have been lost, so there is no written history. More recently, many people were killed in a plague known as the Great Contagion. The mass death that the novel opens with is more localised, however. Heavy rains cause a landslide. The weight of earth collapsing into a lake releases a cloud of poisonous gases from the sediment in the depths; it descends on a town lower down the valley and smothers everything that breathes.

The town is called Ferrytown, and it sits on the banks of a river – at a guess, the river that used to be known as the Mississippi – at a crossing point for the great eastward migration. Manifest destiny is unravelling; the frontier has retreated to the eastern seaboard. Capitalism is winding down, trade coming to a halt: one family at last abandons their fishing village when the son ‘became his parents’ last remaining customer for nets’ and ‘they became the only ones to buy his fish.’

Two people survive the poisoning of Ferrytown. One of them is Franklin Lopez, a young man travelling east with his older brother, Jackson – they are unaware that they have been named after grand old men of American history. They have left their mother behind on the family farm, and hope to be taken by ship, once they reach the coast, to a better life across the ocean. But if this is what has happened to America, which ‘used to be the safest place on earth’, what has happened to the rest of the world? The brothers can’t worry about such things just yet. Franklin spends the night on a hill above Ferrytown, because he has an injured knee and can’t walk any further. Jackson goes on without him, and disappears.

The other survivor is Margaret, a native of Ferrytown, whose surname we never learn. She is suffering from the ‘flux’, a potentially lethal disease, and so must stay in the Pesthouse, a stone hut on the hill, until she either recovers or dies. Her head has been shaved, according to tradition, as a mark of her illness. Franklin and Margaret are saved by their infirmities. Like many of Crace’s heroes – the one-armed storyteller in The Gift of Stones; the deaf badu in Quarantine – Margaret has a permanent disability too: she is short-sighted. ‘The distance always looked as if it needed a wipe.’ There’s no such thing as a pair of spectacles in Crace’s future America; when Margaret stumbles across a set of antique binoculars, they become her most treasured possession, all the more precious for being not only rare but useful, unlike ‘the silver cup’ that Franklin finds, ‘whose purpose, probably, was just to be valuable’ – that interjected ‘probably’ indicating how implausible luxury objects have become.

During the night, Franklin seeks shelter from the heavy rain in the Pesthouse, but is deterred by the candlelit sight of Margaret’s shaved head. But he returns in the morning: ‘It would be a pity not to be of service to the woman . . . he decided, straining to see her face and shaven head more clearly, hoping to see more – a naked leg flung out of bed, perhaps, a breast. He wanted an excuse to help her.’ The following night he spends at her bedside, talking to her; in the early hours he wakes to find her foot in his hands, and massages it the way his mother massaged his feet when he was a child. ‘Perhaps she would have gotten better anyway, but as usual nature’s undramatic remedies would remain unrewarded. Margaret’ – like Musa with Jesus – ‘was bound to credit her rescue to Franklin’s busy hands.’

They descend the hill together and find that everyone in Ferrytown – his brother, her family – has died. They have no choice except to set out eastwards together towards the coast. They are a misfit couple, and a pair of misfits. Margaret’s red hair is a rarity and, at 31, she is too old to marry. Growing up as she did in a small, puritanical community, she is also a virgin. Franklin is tall and strong, but nervous and given to blushing. His brother was always the bold one, the leader; it was Jackson who coined the mantra, repeated through the course of the novel with shifting nuances, that ‘only the crazy make it to the coast.’ Franklin and Margaret tell other migrants they meet on the road that they are brother and sister. But this is on the face of it so unlikely that they have quickly to add that they have different mothers. The customs and traditions of Crace’s dystopia are subtly conveyed, revealed only through the eyes of people who already take them for granted.

Fellow migrants are not the only other people abroad in the wilderness: there are also dangerous bands of marauding horsemen, descendants of the men who cost the storyteller in The Gift of Stones his arm, but who could just as well have ridden out of the pages of a novel by Cormac McCarthy, or a film by Peckinpah. The Pesthouse is, if not exactly a Western, then a distorted reflection of one. Under attack from a group of mounted bandits, Franklin saves Margaret by pulling off her headscarf and revealing her hairless scalp. The horsemen, too, are afraid of sickness. But Franklin can’t save himself, and is taken away to work on a chain gang. Separated before they have a chance to become lovers – ‘her lost and never lover . . . the lover she had never even kissed’; Crace writes wonderfully well about people not having sex – they continue their separate journeys to the coast. (When they are at last reunited, it surely comes as a surprise only to them.)

Margaret has lost Franklin, but soon finds herself with someone else to look after: a parentless baby, Bella, whose family she doesn’t put much effort into finding. When people assume the baby is hers, she sees no reason to correct them. And when they assume Bella is a boy, she renames her ‘Jackson’, after Franklin’s brother, which becomes ‘Jackie’ once there is no hiding that the baby is a girl. As Jackie learns to talk, she calls Margaret ‘Ma’ – but that’s only an abbreviation of her name, after all. Margaret, who grew up in an isolated community, wants to belong. This is a variation on a story that Crace has told several times before, but never better than here. It’s important that Margaret – and Franklin – leave home not in order for them to see the world, or not only for that, but in order for them to see home more clearly, to see it in the context of the wider world, and to be able to see themseves more clearly, out of the context of home. Reading fiction – good fiction; fiction as good as this is – can achieve a similar effect. Margaret survives because she quickly learns to break the rules, to ignore the customs, to forge alliances with people with whom she has no officially sanctioned relationship, to enter into relationships she has to lie about because there is no simple, official way to describe them. ‘Angry because anger was purposeful’, ‘impolite because courtesy was an impediment’, capable and resourceful, Margaret is fiercely likeable.

Almost at the coast, she seeks shelter for the winter from a sinister religious community, the ‘Finger Baptists’, who live in a wooden stockade known as the ‘Ark’. No metal is allowed inside: any migrants who wish to stay must relinquish knives, tools, cooking pans, jewellery, belt buckles at the gate. It’s an idiotic, regressive rule, but regressive cults flourish by imposing idiotic rules on their members. ‘Metal is the Devil’s work,’ the Finger Baptists say. ‘Metal is the cause of greed and war . . . Check your pockets. Shake out all your rust. Remove your shoes. Unlace your bags.’ (The frustration and humiliation experienced by the migrants will be familiar to any reader who has travelled recently by plane.) The most senior of the Finger Baptists are the twenty Helpless Gentlemen, whose hands and arms have withered to uselessness through disuse. They don’t so much as feed or wash themselves, and rumour has it that some guests at the Ark are required to earn their keep by masturbating the Helpless Gentlemen. Handjobs aside, their creed of inactivity is a perverted one; and Jackie is right to ‘burst into tears and hold onto her ma’ when the Helpless Gentlemen come too close. Besides which, without metal the Ark would be defenceless against an attack from men without such qualms, men like the gang who took Franklin away.

When they have been reunited, Margaret, Franklin and Jackie make it at last to the coast, but what they find there isn’t at all what they were expecting. They are instead faced with an apparently impossible choice: ‘We can’t stay here,’ Margaret says, ‘we can’t go onward. And we can’t go back.’ But against all the odds, this provisional family thrown together by chance – the lovers who have never kissed and the daughter who isn’t theirs – find for themselves a provisionally happy ending. Such a note of restrained optimism isn’t easy to achieve, especially at the end of a severe dystopian fable. Yet Crace manages to strike the right chord with clarity and precision. The outlook is bleak, but those who are crazy enough, and crafty enough, and lucky enough, might just be OK.

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