Prophet motives

BY MICHLE ROBERTS QUARANTINE by Jim Crace Viking pounds 16.99
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Take a few troubled characters, each driven by private demons, put them down in the loneliest and roughest desert landscape you can imagine,

deprive them of comforts and security, then sit back and watch them scrabble to survive. It sounds like the plot outline of a disaster movie. If you make one of the tortured souls Jesus Christ, preparing for his future ministry by withdrawing for 40 days into the wilderness to pray and fast, then you can expect some extra heavenly revelations, as his companions squabble over the meaning of holiness and salvation.

The strongest impression left by this novel is that of its setting, scrub and scree unequalled in bleakness and inhospitality. The land is like a person: "The scrub required its passengers to take care of themselves or go without. The scrub was economical, as well, like some old men, and boundless in its barrenness and poverty. Its air was thin; its earth was pale; its weeds were frayed; its moods were fractious and despairing."

The protagonists pit themselves against it in various characteristic ways. Jesus, for example, is like one of those male mountaineers determined to scale Everest at all costs: he's the classic loner, driven to prove himself by a god (Crace prefers lower-case for the creator) who's high above, all spirit. We don't discover what Jesus is like as a person by watching him interact with the other denizens of his chosen desert, because he needs to keep away from human beings in order to test his powers of survival. We have to take on trust what Crace's omniscient narrator tells us about his spiritual drive, his love of prayer, his confused humanity. He emerges as definitely different, very much other.

Perversely, I found the merchant Musa a more sympathetic character, perhaps because he's so familiar and recognisable, a true Thatcherite entrepreneur, a master of tricks, bribes and deceit. He's been left behind for dead by his caravan, which has travelled on without him. His wife Miri, whom he bullies and beats, has been abandoned too. Full of hope , she digs a grave for her husband and aches for widowhood. Lots of miserable marital sex has made her pregnant, unlike Marta, another desperate pilgrim arrived for 40 days of penance and prayer, who's barren and desperate to conceive. A certain comedy sets in as Musa unexpectedly recovers, accidentally aided by Jesus, whom the ambitious merchant now recognises as saviour and longs to set up in business, and the two women make friends. Crace paints them with immense compassion, but perhaps they're a little too good, a little too victimised, to be of startling interest.

The novel's message is a convincing one: we manufacture our own heroes out of our own needs. Jesus, or "The Gally" as Musa calls him, is an unknown being made radiant and numinously powerful by the others' projections. Crace doesn't so much cut Jesus down to size as depict him as a screen on to which the others throw their wants and idealism brightly as flashlights. After he's apparently died from overdoing the fasting and negation bit, they resurrect him because they need him to lead them, out of the wilderness, back into life and hope. It's a good, solid, atheistic message, delivered in language of great poetry, clarity and beauty.

You can only admire Crace for tackling such a tricky subject. Scoffing unbelievers may well be drawn to the psychological portraits, compellingly offered, of the seekers after truth, while orthodox Christians may find their faith shaken and stirred. What bothered me a little was Crace's chosen narrative perspective. If you're going to employ the omniscient narrator (Him Up There, the Book's author, dammit), then you have to make your illusion so watertight that the reader forgets she is looking through language and just accepts unquestioningly that all this is as real as a Hollywood movie in which the camera hides behind sand-dunes and pretends not to exist. Crace's narrative, however, consistently subverts itself, either by swinging abruptly between interior and omniscient story-telling, or by changing its mind about facts and letting us see that it does. You keep realising you are seeing the book being written, the tale in process, the author revisiting himself.

Perhaps what Crace wants is to demonstrate the illusions of his characters through demonstrating the artifice of his prose. I'll give him the benefit of the doubt on that one. Certainly his perspective on that hot, haunted desert makes you believe in all kinds of mirage.