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 ...

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