"Quarantine," by Jim Crace, Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 256 pages. $24. This reimagining of Christ's 40 days of trial, fasting and temptation in the desert before his return to Nazareth is prefaced with a scholarly disclaimer: "medicine opposes" the credibility of such an arduous feat being achieved by "an ordinary man of average weight and fitness."
The bold, iconoclastic English writer once more throws down the gauntlet to his readers. Jim Crace wants us to embark upon his hallucinatory novel with a tabula rasa. Suspend disbelief, o ye readers (of modernist fiction) with little faith!
The problem is that Crace's hyper-literary style soon quashes any emotional involvement the reader might want to achieve. The arid, harsh, Paul Bowles-like narrative, set among the heat and scrub of the lands of Israel, becomes too oppressive and imaginary for its own good.
The story is populated by four penitent pilgrims; a tall, thin Jesus the Galilean is the fifth and distant wanderer, straggling behind the rest, seeking his own dark, chilly cave within which to ponder troubled thoughts.
The "quarantine" is the root word for 40 obligatory days of introspection, interrupted by the appearance of an overweight, self-indulgent and manipulative merchant named Musa. He is Crace's Satan-figure incarnate, given distasteful life as Jesus' adversary.
Once the narrative stage is set, radically unlike the biblical text, the story penetrates the consciousnesses of each of its characters, hummingbird-like flitting at will from one mind to the next, forcing us to follow along.
So doing, the author takes on an aggressive and ultimately off-putting omniscience; he does not trust the intelligent reader to arrive at his own conclusions.
This manipulative stylistic trait contributes to the posture of "Quarantine." Jesus' four companions are employed as carefully positioned searchlights to illuminate him: a fair-skinned traveler bearing a walking staff; an elderly Jew; a villager from southern deserts; and, most intriguing, a stately, Jewish woman named Marta, unable to conceive a child.
The plot thickens when Musa the merchant imposes himself upon this motley quartet, convinces them they have trespassed upon "his" land, and extracts tribute by enlisting them to draw "the Galilean man or boy, this godly creature" Jesus forward, "to test his fortitude... 'Go back and bring him here, the fifth,'" he orders them.
Young Jesus becomes the ultimate existential hero. Perhaps this is the root of his appeal for novelist Crace, a writer who revels in the twists and turns of his own artifices.
In desperation, the obese merchant turns his sinister, all-too-earthly sexual fantasies toward the vulnerable pilgrim Marta, plotting a way to invade her cave under cover of night and have his way.
Herein resides the unbearable tension of "Quarantine." How does Jesus - alone and weakened by starvation - "withstand the chilling offers from the promontory," Musa's unctuous catcalls, accompanied by cool goatskins of water dangled by rope from the cliff above his dwelling - and find faith to prevail?
Even though anyone who has read the New Testament already knows the answer to these age-old questions, if Jim Crace had been more of a humanist and not such a cold wordsmith, we might care about the outcome.
Neil Baldwin's screenplay for the PBS American Masters documentary, "Man Ray: Prophet of the Avant-Garde," was nominated for an Emmy Award last year. His new book, "Legends of the Plumed Serpent: Biography of a Mexican God," is forthcoming in October from PublicAffairs Press.
Pub Date: 5/10/98