Hiveward-Winging

Robert Irwin

  • Quarantine by Jim Crace
    Viking, 243 pp, £16.99, June 1997, ISBN 0 670 85697 5

‘I’ll just explain the central situation. Six people are trapped in a lift between two floors of a skyscraper – a musician, a surgeon, a charwoman, a conjuror and his female assistant, and a hunchback carrying a small suitcase.’

‘Containing some sandwiches, I hope,’ chuckled the local curate. ‘They’re bound to get hungry before long.’

‘You can fill in the details for yourself,’ said Froulish, not realising that the man imagined himself to be joking. ‘Where was I? Yes there are six in the lift. Part of the book consists of a series of flashbacks ... over the previous life of each of them. Not their physical lives, just the psychic currents that flowed through them. It’s chiefly expressed through patterns of imagery.’

‘God help us,’ said Gunning-Forbes loudly.

Reading Jim Crace’s Quarantine, I was powerfully reminded of Froulish’s projected stuck-in-a-lift novel. A lugubriously entertaining secondary character in John Wain’s wonderful picaresque fiction, Hurry on Down (1953), Froulish went on to present his restive audience with the main topics of his austerely untitled novel, including hunger, thirst, boredom and thoughts of suicide, as well as the quest for the mysterious (and surely allegorical) ‘Chief Electrician’. In the end, Froulish’s novel turns out to be an unreadable book, though only because it was never written.

Quarantine is about a handful of misfits brought together in a prolonged ordeal in the Judean desert. Shim is a blond-haired Gentile travelling in search of enlightenment, an ostentatious amateur ascetic and also ‘a touch sinister’. Aphas is an old Jew who has entered the desert to fast, as a remedy for his cancer. Marta, a beautiful, barren woman, hopes that penance in the desert will allow her to conceive. There is also a crazed and speechless – therefore nameless – badu (that is, a nomadic Arab). Since he does not speak, his reason for being in this particular patch of wilderness is never revealed. Though mute and mad, the badu is resourceful – and a little reminiscent of Froulish’s mute hunchback. We learn about the past of the other misfits in flashback and follow their wary interactions, as they squat hungrily in the desert and, having nothing much else to think about, brood on hunger, thirst, boredom and God. Musa, however, is different. A cruel and mendacious merchant, he has not entered the desert for enlightenment. He was passing through with a trading mission when fever overtook him and he was dumped and left to die by his companions. Miri, his put-upon wife, is the sixth misfit.

In the distance, there is a seventh. ‘A slow, painstaking figure, made thin and watery by the rising, mirage heat, as if someone had thrown a stone into the pool of air through which it walked and ripples diluted it.’ Crace’s insubstantial Jesus is barely glimpsed by the others. It is hard not to think of another place of rock and no water.

Who is the third who walks always beside you?
When I count, there are only you and I together
But when I look ahead up the white road
There is always another one walking beside you
Gliding wrapt in a brown mantle, hooded ...

At the beginning of the story Musa is infested with the demon of sickness. Having been abandoned by the trading caravan, he is then deserted by his wife, Miri, who leaves him for dead. He is cured by Jesus who, having taken a sip from Musa’s waterskin, utters a conventional blessing: ‘So, here, be well again.’ After leaving Musa, Jesus begins his 40 days of solitary fasting. His status as a miracle-worker in the desert is swiftly promoted by Musa, and in the rest of the novel the misfits’ muddled attempts to make contact with Jesus are the counterpoint to his single-minded fast unto death and enlightenment.

Quarantine does not obviously resemble any of Crace’s earlier fictions which, for that matter, do not obviously resemble one another. In Continent (1986) he created an imaginary seventh continent as the setting for a series of strange short stories about Third World issues. A Gift of Stones (1988) was set in a community of stone-carvers at the end of the Stone Age; despite Crace’s unmistakably genuine interest in the details of the technology of working in stone, this prehistoric yarn was invaded by more modern concerns about the social consequences of depending on an obsolete technology. A Gift of Stones was also a story about the nature of storytelling. Arcadia (1992), set in a nowhere city, was largely the story of a millionaire’s struggle to impose an architectural order on the teeming slum in which he grew up and from which he escaped. Signals of Distress (1994) was a social comedy set in the last century which related the impact on a small West Country port of the prolonged residence of a shipwrecked crew. It was and is his most human as well as his funniest book.

These books do, however, have features in common. Crace employs a polished and dictatorial literary style which obliges all his characters to speak in artistic prose. The effect of the carefully judged cadences is somewhat claustrophobic. At the same time, the author’s own voice is effaced. He is chary of commenting on his creations, or of revealing anything of himself. The social tragedy of obsolescent crafts is a feature of the first four books. Crace enjoys inventing imaginary landscapes, whether they are small towns or small continents. In Quarantine the desert is practically a character. ‘The empty lands – these very caves, these paths, these desert pavements made of rock, these pebbled flats, these badlands, and these unwatered river beds – were siblings to the empty spaces in the heart. Why else would scrubs have any visitors at all?’ Though vividly realised, Crace’s landscapes do not relate easily to the real world. While it is certainly possible that A Gift of Stones and Arcadia are about Birmingham, its declining motor industry and its redeveloped suburbs, this is by no means obvious. In the case of Quarantine the wilderness of temptation is set in the mind rather than in any historical Judea. Crace does not proceed by turning reality into fiction and then commenting authorially on it. He seems to prefer invention to research, making things look right to factual accuracy – and quite right too. It is more fun that way. Quarantine is full of cod proverbs and bogus Oriental superstitions and Shim speaks Siddilic, the language of the imaginary continent of Crace’s first book.

Similarly, when dealing with hunger and with hunting in Quarantine, Crace seems to have chosen not to get these things right. Jesus sets out to endure in the desert without food and water for 40 days and nights. He has not anticipated

how cruelly his body would begin to eat itself as his muscles and his liver and his kidneys fought for fuel like squalid, desert boys battling for a piece of wood; how his legs would swell with pus; how his skin would tear and how the wounds would be too weak to dress themselves with scabs. No one had said, there will be stomach pains and cramps, demanding to be rubbed and soothed like dogs.

Finally, after 30 days, Jesus dies and is transformed into something strange and super-human. Crace’s evocations of his sufferings and physical deterioration prior to death and transfiguration are detailed and persuasive, but not strictly accurate.

A person who refuses food but who takes water can survive for quite a long time. The Irish hunger-strikers of 1980-1 ceased to feel hunger pangs after the third or fourth day. Their metabolic rates dropped and their pulses slowed. Heart-beats became irregular. Their bodies began to devour themselves very much in the way described in Quarantine. From about the fortieth day (the end of the Biblical quarantine) they experienced constant nausea and could not hold down water. Blindness and deafness set in after about fifty days. As many as seventy days’ fasting are possible before death. But the Irish hunger-strikers were taking water and, according to the SAS Survival Handbook (which is always beside me on my desk as I write), a person who refuses water as well as food can last only two or three days and only that long if he or she does nothing at all. Ah well, this is the Son of God, whose fast is more believable than those of his rivals, Kafka’s Hunger Artist and the protagonist of Knut Hamsun’s Hunger. Kafka and Hamsun’s hungry performers both seem to be involved in some kind of literary protest, making a metaphorical statement about the plight of the artist, whereas Crace’s Jesus has no interest in literature and, I think, no message for those who do not inhabit the novel.

The misleading case of badu hunting techniques is also instructive. These are wonderfully elaborate. In order to catch a bird in the desert, you must first find a tethered goat and then rub salt in its ear in order to extract a blood-filled tick and then tie a thread round the tick’s abdomen. Leave the tick with its thread weighted down on an exposed rock and wait for a bird to swallow the proffered bait. Then, just as the bird has finished swallowing the tick, jerk on the thread to bring the bird low. Once the bird is in hand, it is a good idea to break one of its wings in order to prevent its flying away. We are similarly instructed on how to find honey in the desert. Take a stick. Hollow the stick out with a sharpened stone. Plug the hollowed end of the stick with rotting apricot. Wait for bees to find the apricot. Wait till ten or so of them are inside the hollow stick, before stopping it with your hand. Let one bee go and follow it until, inevitably, you lose sight of it. Release another bee and follow that. And so on until a final hiveward-winging bee brings you to the honey you are seeking.

I have spent time in the Sahara and in the Empty Quarter of the Arabian Peninsula, and, for that matter, wandered around Judea, but I have never heard of these ingenious procedures. Forays through the pages of Violet Dickson’s The Arab of the Desert, Jibrail Jabbur’s The Bedouins and the Desert and K.E.M. Melville’s Stay Alive in the Desert failed to shed light on these matters. (The desert survival techniques narrated by Crace invite comparison with those adopted by G.I. Gurdjieff’s travelling party in order to cross the Gobi desert. According to Meetings with Remarkable Men, these included the use of edible sand as fodder and of stilts to keep the party’s heads above sandstorms.) Crace’s account of the badu’s hive-finding technique is a device which introduces the reader to Musa’s manner of constructing his stories, for the unscrupulous merchant likes to peddle fictions as well as merchandise to the gullible and many of these fictions are plagiarised. Musa steals the badu’s device and invents a story in which he, Musa, is the hero and saves a caravan in the desert by releasing a sequence of monkeys, one after another, and using them to locate a hidden cistern of water.

The badu’s mode of proceding had been stark and business-like, but Musa’s reworking of the core idea is a florid tale of self-redemption. Crace isn’t offering his readers tips about how to stay alive in a Biblical wilderness, but a parable about the novelist’s relation to reality. It seems that storytelling is one craft about which he feels ambivalent, for Musa, the proto-novelist working in the wilderness, is an evil man. Towards the end of his passage through the desert, he is working out how he can use his fancifully elaborated story of an encounter with a miraculous healer in order to win money and respect. Jesus has identified Musa as the incarnation of Satanic temptation: ‘Here was a devil then, sent to the wilderness, with death and fever as his friends, attended by four mad, unbelonging souls, to be adversaries to god.’ The trouble is that Musa, despite being a miser, swindler and wife-beater, does not seem so very evil. I have encountered more intimidating villains in James Bond novels.

Surely the Son of God deserved a mightier and more sinister adversary than a vain-glorious old merchant who has lost most of his trading capital and who will eventually be ditched by his wife? But Crace’s Jesus is hardly a figure of power either. The Jesus who commences the fast of 40 days is half-formed, naive and uncertain. At the end of it, risen from death, he re-enters the world of men, ‘a thin halting figure tacking the scree, almost a mirage – ankleless, no arms – in the lifting light’. If there is spiritual warfare in the Judean desert, it is a strangely quiet war and it is unclear, too, what message the six misfits can take back with them after their ordeal in the wilderness. Quarantine is a beautifully crafted enigmatic parable which is about nothing except itself. ‘To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside everything is in parables; so that they may indeed see but not perceive, and may indeed hear but not understand; lest they should turn again and be forgiven’ (Mark, 4:11-12).