Magazine article The Spectator

A Voice Crying in the Wilderness

Magazine article The Spectator

A Voice Crying in the Wilderness

Article excerpt

It's hard to imagine who will dislike Jim Crace's startling, beguiling novel more: atheists who resent his thick symbolism and deific narration, or Christians offended by his arm's-length, cynical rendering of Jesus's 40 days in the wilderness, his 'quarantine'. Using a simple plot and the barest characterisation, it is a primitive and jocular book of big themes: about suspect saviours, the possible pointlessness of spirituality, and so the constant nag of evil.

With Quarantine, Crace has returned to the vaguely historicised writing which makes him such a sure story-teller. After the sparsity of Arcadia and Continent, it seems even broader in ambition, a parable for our anno domini. Miri and her traderhusband Musa have been left in the desert by the caravan because the latter is thought feverous. He revives at the hand of a passing Galilean, one of five now in the wilderness for their own reasons; there's the manic Badu, the proud Shim, a withdrawn Aphas, and the infertile Marta, praying for a child. Jesus ('Gally' is the grating nickname given him by the healed Musa), meanwhile, has descended into the caves under a precipice, renouncing clothing, sanity, the water and food proffered by those above. As he expires, the remaining six - the touchstones for any society play out an adult Lord of the Flies.

Crace's references are often arresting. The caves where the quarantiners dwell, charged rent by Musa, are invested with all the sexuality of Forster's Marabar equivalents: She watched the shadow, and, yes, it swelled and reached into her cave as she dreamed. It came into her empty spaces. This was no boyish skin and bones. This man was large, and getting larger too. He held her wrists. He cupped her head inside his giant palms.

Characters mutate into recognisable equivalents: Martha and Mary of the gospels are hinted at in the female names. Reverberations occur even linguistically, the 'gingery' balm of Marta linked in Musa's lecherous mind with a longing for water `with a touch of ginger to its taste'.

Simple incidents are rendered at length; the digging of a grave, a face-down burial for one without offspring so he can copulate with the earth; the hunt for honey in the desert scrub, letting out one captured bee at a time as a lead; the trapping of a wheatear for sacrifice, using a tick and a thread. …

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