The Failure of Crace’s Quarantine
Quarantine is the latest installment in a sub-genre of literature where the central conceit is to tell a story from the point of view of the minor characters in a famous tale, with the more renowned stars of the originals taking in subordinate roles. Quarantine he tells the story of Christ's forty days in the wilderness, but with Jesus shunted to the periphery, in favor of several other pilgrims. In particular, the novel focuses on a trader, Musa--dishonest, loutish, and brutal--whom Jesus almost incidentally brings back to life from an apparently fatal illness. In turn it is only Musa, despicable as he is, who realizes that there is something extraordinary about this young man from Galillee.
The novel is only partially successful, in large measure because this structural technique falls flat. While Crace succeeds brilliantly in evoking the harsh atmosphere in which the quarantine takes place, the narrative comes to a screeching halt whenever Jesus is absent. Musa is simply too unpleasant a character for us to care what happens to him and none of the others really grab our attention. Nor can their stories hope to compete with the action we know to be taking place away from center stage.
Crace's demystification of Jesus is not very effective either. On the one hand he portrays Jesus as merely an overly pious youth, estranged from his family because of his bizarre behavior, and says of those who undertake this desert ordeal :
This was the season of the lunatics: the first new moon of spring was summoning those men--for lunatics are mostly men. They have the time and opportunity--to exorcize that part of them which sent them mad. Mad with grief, that is. Or shame. Or love. Or illness and visions. Mad enough to think that everything they did, no matter how vain or trivial, was of interest to their god. Mad enough to think that forty days of discomfort could put their world in order.
The fact that Musa turns out to be such an unsuitable candidate for resurrection, defrauding his fellow travelers and finally even raping one young woman, is probably intended to be an ironic comment on the nature of "miracles." And the torments sent by Satan to test Jesus are revealed to be nothing but petty annoyances foisted upon him by Musa.