Books: The Devil has all the best dunes

Michael Arditti is led into temptation and delivered from evil; Quarantine by Jim Crace, Viking, pounds 16.99

At the start of Jim Crace's new novel, five travellers are making their way through the Judean wilderness, preparing to spend 40 days in seclusion, fasting and prayer. Four plan to break their fasts each dusk. The fifth, who remains apart, intends to maintain total abstinence during the entire "quarantine".

Quarantine is a novel with two distinct strands. The first - and most successful - concerns the four fictional travellers: Marta, a young woman desperate for a child after ten years of barrenness; Aphas, an elderly man hoping for a miracle cure for cancer; Shim, a fair-haired Gentile searching for inner peace; and a mysterious mute, Badu.

The second strand concerns the fifth traveller, Jesus, who - according to Christian tradition - spent 40 days in the desert at the start of his ministry. That Crace takes a different view is clear from the epigraph which states that no human body could last for more than 30 days without food and drink.

Nevertheless, Crace sticks to the gospel account in several respects. His Jesus is tempted by Satan, albeit in the very human shape of Musa, a merchant who is travelling to Jericho. Deemed to be suffering from an incurable fever, he is left for dead by his relations, along with Miri his pregnant wife, only to be revived by a touch from Jesus. Crace allows Jesus no sense of divinity (he considers himself not the Son of God in his own right but His nephew by dint of his race) and implies that faith (or, more accurately, credulity) is in the heart of the believer. He deliberately courts ambiguity in his description of Jesus expelling "the devil's air" from Musa's chest, leaving the reader to separate metaphor from reality.

Musa's recovery provides the motor of the book. Even in writing as consistently accomplished as this, the Devil has all the best prose. He is as close to pure evil as is possible in Crace's humanistic scheme, tyrannising his fellow travellers, claiming property rights over the common land, turning everything into money. He personifies materialism, yet it is he who leads the others in the quest for Jesus.

Here, as in the earlier Continent, Crace's landscape painting is magnificent. His imagery, whether comparing the moon to "the thinnest melon slice, hardbacked, translucent, colourless", or recounting the effects of fasting which cause Jesus' teeth to "become as loose as date stones", is masterly. As a recreation of an ancient culture and an expansion of a biblical story, Quarantine is worthy to stand beside The Four Wise Men, Michel Tournier's classic account of the Journey of the Magi.

Crace's imagination falters only with Jesus. It is significant that the other characters usually see Jesus at a distance or through a heat-haze, since the author fails to bring him into full focus. Overall, this Jesus seems to be a cross between one of Dostoyevsky's holy fools and a Sixties dropout. He is given some amusingly human characteristics, such as clumsiness and dirty nails. What he isn't given is any autonomous inner life. When he envisages his future, it is always in terms of conventional biblical imagery or actions the gospel Jesus performed, like the cleansing of the Temple. This militates against the revisionist portrait in the novel as a whole.

Unlike Kazantzakis's The Last Temptation of Christ, which uses an alternative temptation to explore faith, Crace uses one to explore credulity. The result cannot but be reductive. Irrespective of religious truth, there is bound to be artistic diminution when Jesus is turned into a priggish would-be rebel with a weak bladder nicknamed Gally and the Devil is domesticated.

Nevertheless, the context of their encounter provies ample compensatory pleasures. Crace's powers of description are as awesome as the landscape he evokes. The reader, like the traveller, may fail to find spiritual enlightenment, but he leaves his Quarantine intellectually stimulated and imaginatively enriched.

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