Sunday, 26 September 2010

Quarantine

As a teenager I read and loved Lloyd Douglas's books about Jesus, The Robe and The Big Fisherman.  When I say these books are about Jesus I mean they were set in Jesus' day, and he appears in them.  The Robe centres on the commander of the soldiers who are on duty at his crucifixion, while The Big Fisherman takes its title from the apostle Peter who is its main character.  Douglas, a devout Christian, did not attempt to portray Jesus in much detail.  Even in the story of Peter he is a distant, mysterious figure, unimpressive at first sight but profoundly affecting on closer encounter.  What motivates Jesus, what his inner thoughts are, what struggles he undergoes, remain a mystery.  Jesus in these stories is not a person, he is a presence, known almost exclusively by his influence on others.

Jim Crace, whose other novels have been mentioned in this blog before, has no such reserve.  As far as I know he doesn't follow any Christian faith and if he does this novel doesn't show it.  As a result, he rushes in where Douglas fears to tread, attempting a journey inside Jesus' mind.

In this account, Jesus is one of five pilgrims who separately make their way to a spot in the wilderness near Jericho to hold a spring "quarantine" or forty day fast.  They come for various reasons - the old man Aphas to seek a cure for the cancer of which he is dying, the woman Marta seeking a cure for her infertility, the self-satisfied Greek Shim looking for enlightenment to further his carreer as a religious teacher, the deaf and dumb badu whose reasons remain a mystery.  Already camped near the caves in which they will spend their fast is Musa, abandoned by his merchant family because he is dying of fever, and his pregnant wife Miri.  Arriving and begging a little water from the inert, near dead Musa, Jesus appears to perform his first miracle, splashing water on Musa's face and greeting him with the customary words, "be well again". 

This healing, however, is deeply ambivalent.  Musa is a psychopath, abusing his wife and bullying the other four worshippers into paying him rent for the land they are on, which he says is his.  These four, nevous and confused, are keeping only a daylight fast in any case, breaking their fast each sundown and also nibbling and drinking a little before dawn to tide them through the day.  They fear the obese Musa, but also welcome his water and his dates, and listen fascinated at his mesmerising stories.

Only Jesus is impervious, keeping a complete fast in an all but inaccessible cave.  For him Musa becomes the devil, trying to tempt him to leave the cave and accept some food or water for some reason that even Musa himself does not fully understand, although Musa convinces himself he wants to profit from Jesus' healing powers.  The others also beg him to come out, because each sees in him the possibility of their own healing.

In the chapters which portray Jesus, Crace walks a fine line between piety and cynicism.  Jesus is clearly no God.  He is a naive, uneducated Galilean villager, derided as clumsy and foolish by his family.  Yes he is also deeply and genuinely touched by God, devoted to prayer, determined to live a life of service, vowing the strictest of possible fasts in the belief that God will come to him and inhabit him.  Although his thoughts are not completely holy - he imagines himself returning home and proving his family and neighbours wrong, healing the sick in God's name - nor are they sinful.  He doesn't wish anyone ill, even his tempters, and he does not fall for their temptation.  The pouch of food they lower to his cave mouth is thrown over the precipice untouched.

In what follows Crace manages to compress much of the gospel story into the less than forty days which the quarantine ends up taking.  On the windy night which follows day 30 of the fast Jesus finally dies of dehydration, while Musa is busy brutally solving Marta's infertility.  The next day Miri and Marta, by this time as close as sisters, dress his body and the men bury it in the grave Miri hopefully dug for Musa at the start of the story.  Yet Musa has already seen Jesus walking in the wilderness, and Marta has been visited by him and comforted.  By the end of the story all five - even Miri, with Marta's encouragement - have escaped Musa's clutches and left him to drag his fat body down the mountain alone and unaided.  Left with nothing to trade, we leave Musa planning his new career as a purveyor of stories of the healer Jesus, who he sees for a second time as he leaves the hills, picking his way down the slope with feet bleeding from the thorns.

In contrast to the views I've been discussing over the past couple of weeks, this is an oddly "in-between" picture of Christian belief.  The techniques of magical realism allow Crace to sit on the fence.  Miracles are certainly possible.  A sick man can be healed, an abused wife can be freed from her husband, a devout village misfit can experience God's presence and be caught up into heaven.  Yet these miracles will be ambivalent.  It may have been better for everyone, at least in the short term, if the sick man had been left to die.  And this healed psychopath becomes the apostle, embroidering endlessly on his brief encounter with Jesus in every marketplace until the story becomes the unrecognisable gospel we have today.

This is a Jesus you can feel sorry for, even admire in a distant kind of way, but it need not affect your life much.  Such is Crace's skill as a storyteller that you can easily slip into his point of view, in which his imagining is the truth and our gospels merely the creations of a pathological liar.  In this view you could believe in the possibility of healing, even of miracles, but you wouldn't want to devote your life to it.

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