Jim Crace's novel is the brilliantly imagined story of Christ's forty days in the wilderness, a tale of three men, two women, and a curious wanderer whose peculiar fate is transformed into legend. Dazzling, gritty, and utterly compelling, Quarantine is a work at once timeless and timely - a parable for the ages.
|Publisher:||Farrar, Straus and Giroux|
|File size:||279 KB|
About the Author
Jim Crace is the author of Continent, The Gift of Stones, Arcadia, Signals of Distress, Being Dead, and most recently The Devil's Larder. He has won the Whitbread First Novel Prize, the E. M. Forster Award, and the GAP International Prize for Literature. His novels have been translated into fourteen languages. He lives in Birmingham, England, with his wife and two children.
Jim Crace is the author of many novels, including Quarantine, which won the 1997 Whitbread Novel of the Year Award and was shortlisted for the 1997 Booker Prize for Fiction. His novels have been translated into eighteen languages. He lives with his wife and children in Birmingham, England.
Read an Excerpt
By Jim Crace
PicadorCopyright © 1998 Jim Crace
All rights reserved.
Miri's husband was shouting in his sleep, not words that she could recognize but simple, blurting fanfares of distress. When, at last, she lit a lamp to discover what was tormenting him, she saw his tongue was black – scorched and sooty. Miri smelled the devil's eggy dinner roasting on his breath; she heard the snapping of the devil's kindling in his cough. She put her hand on to his chest; it was soft, damp and hot, like fresh bread. Her husband, Musa, was being baked alive. Good news.
Miri was as dutiful as she could be. She sat cross-legged inside their tent with Musa's neck resting on the pillow of her swollen ankles, his head pushed up against the new distension of her stomach, and tried to lure the fever out with incense and songs. He received the treatment that she – five months pregnant, and in some discomfort – deserved for herself She wiped her husband's forehead with a dampened cloth. She rubbed his eyelids and his lips with honey water. She kept the flies away. She sang her litanies all night. But the fever was deaf Or, perhaps, its hearing was so sharp that it had eavesdropped on Miri's deepest prayers and knew that Musa's death would not be unbearable. His death would rescue her.
In the morning Musa was as numb and dry as leather, but – cussed to the last – was gripping thinly on to life. His family and the other, older men from the caravan came in to kiss his forehead and mumble their regrets that they had not treated him with greater patience while he was healthy. When they had smelled and tasted the sourness of his skin and seen the ashy blackness of his mouth, they shook their heads and dabbed their eyes and calculated the extra profits they would make from selling Musa's merchandise on the sly. Musa was paying a heavy price, his uncles said, for sleeping on his back without a cloth across his face. An idiotic way to die. A devil had slipped into his open mouth at night and built a fire beneath the rafters of his ribs. Devils were like anybody else; they had to find what warmth they could or perish in the desert cold. Now Musa had provided lodging for the devil's fever. He wouldn't last more than a day or two – if he did, then it would be a miracle. And not a welcome one.
It was Miri's duty to Musa, everybody said, to let the caravan go on through Jericho towards the markets of the north without her. It couldn't travel with fever in its cargo. It couldn't wait while Musa died. Nor could it spare the forty days of mourning which would follow. That would be madness. Musa himself wouldn't expect such waste. He had been a merchant too, and would agree, if only he were conscious, God forbid, that business should not wait for funerals. Or pregnancies. Fortunes would be lost if merchants could not hurry on. Besides, the camels wouldn't last. They needed grazing and watering, and there was no standing water in this wilderness and hardly any hope of rain. No, it was a crippling sadness for them too, make no mistake, the uncles said, but Miri had to stay behind, continue with her singing till the end, and bury Musa on her own.
She'd have to put up stones to mark her husband's passing and tend his grave until the caravan returned for her. She would be safe and comfortable if she took care. There was sufficient water in skins for a week or so, and then she could locate a cistern of some kind; there were also figs and olives and some grain, some salted meat and other food, plus the tent, the family possessions, small amounts of different wools, a knife, some perfume and a little gold. She'd have company as well. They'd leave six goats for her, plus a halting donkey which was too slow and useless for the caravan. Two donkeys then. Both lame, she said, nodding at her husband.
Nobody laughed at Miri's indiscretions. It did not seem appropriate to laugh when there was fever in the tent, though leaving Musa behind, half dead, was a satisfying prospect for everyone. With luck, they said, Musa would only have to endure his suffering for a day or two more. And then? And then, when Miri had done her duty to her husband, they suggested, there would be habitations in the valley where she could, perhaps, seek refuge. She might find a buyer for the gold; take care, they warned, for gold can bring bad luck as well. Or she might employ the goats to buy herself a place to stay for her confinement – until the caravan had a chance to come for her and any child, if it survived. Eventually, she'd have the profits from her husband's merchandise which they would trade on her behalf, the sacks of decorated copperware from Edom, his beloved bolts of woven cloth, his coloured wools. She smiled at that and shook her head and asked if they imagined that she was a halting donkey too. No, no, they said; why couldn't she have more faith in their honesty? Of course there would be profits from the sale. They would not want to say how much. But she might be rich enough to get another husband. A better one than Musa anyhow, they thought. A smaller one. An older one. One that didn't lie or use his fists so frequently, or shout and weep and laugh so much. One who didn't get so drunk, perhaps, then sit up half the night throwing pebbles at the camels and his neighbours' tents, pelting goats' dung at the moon. One that didn't stink so badly as he died.
They promised they would return by the following spring, one year at the latest. But Miri understood there'd be no spring to bring them back, no matter where they went. They'd make certain that their winters didn't end. Why would they come so far to reclaim the widow and the orphan of a man who'd been so troublesome and unpredictable? Besides, they wouldn't want to lose the profits they had made. Not after they had held them for a year. No, Miri was not worth the trip. That was the plain, commercial truth.
So Miri let them go. She spat into the dust as they set off along the crumbling cliff-tops to the landslip where they could begin their descent. Spitting brought good luck for traders. Deals were struck with a drop of spit on a coin or in the palm of the hand or sometimes even on the goods to be exchanged. Spit does better business than a sneeze, they said. So, if anyone had dared to look at Miri, they could have taken her spitting to be a blessing for their journey. But no one dared. They must have known that she did not wish them well. They'd given her the chance to change her life, perhaps. But inadvertently. No, Miri despised them for their haste and cowardice. Her spitting was a prayer that they would lame themselves, or lose their cargoes in the Jordan, or have their throats sliced open by thieves, their eyes pecked out by birds. She felt elated, once the uncles and their animals had gone. Then she was depressed and terrified. And then entirely calm, despite the isolation of their tent and the nearness of her husband's death. She would not concern herself with the practicalities of life. Not yet. Women managed with much less. For the moment she could only concentrate on all the liberties of widowhood – and motherhood — which would be hers as soon as he was dead.CHAPTER 2
It was midday, and Miri opened up the outer awnings of the tent so that she could both clear the air of death's bad breath and inspect the landscape for signs of life. Did she expect the caravan, already troubled by its conscience, to turn around for her? Or was she simply fearful of the leopards, wolves and snakes which were at home amongst these hills? She sat cross-legged in bands of sunlight, next to her husband's wrapped body, her hand resting almost tenderly on his ankles. He had a fading pulse. And he was all but silent now. A whistling throat, that's all. He'd lost the strength to shout. And he was cold. So was the inside of the tent.
Miri stared into the distant tans and greys of Judea, trying to remember what she was required to do for him, what prayers, what body herbs, what disposition of the limbs. She'd done her duty in the night and tried to lure the devil out. But that had failed. Her husband's body was a labyrinthine hiding place, so full of caves and chambers that many devils could make homes inside. What was her duty to him now? To call on all the gods by name and ask for mercy for this man? To combat his illness, like the perfect, patient wife, with oils and salves and kisses? To find a stone and drop it on his skull? No, nothing that she did would make a difference. That was the truth, bleak and comforting. Her husband was unconscious and about to die, and she should leave him to it. Let the devil do its work behind her back.
Anyway, this vigil was exhausting her. She could not sit a single moment more. Her child was strong and vigorous; it had pressed its arms and legs against her hips so unremittingly that within the past few months her pelvic bones had widened and the nerves were trapped. Her buttocks and her thighs were torments. She felt she had to move out of the tent or turn to stone. This was the remedy. She would simply walk away – if, first, she could defy the pain and stand up – and return that afternoon to a corpse. It might be cowardly to leave a man to die alone, but there was no one there to block her path. No one conscious anyway. Musa couldn't use his knuckles or his fingers or his heels against her now. He couldn't pull her hair to make her stay. She laid the dampened cloth across his mouth – to keep the devils in, perhaps? – loosely tethered the ailing donkey, and staked the one billy amongst the female goats. Then, turning her back against the flaking crown of the cliffs, she went off across the level scrub towards the valleys and low hills in search of well-drained ground and her husband's undug grave.
It would be hard, she knew, to bury Musa. Hard on the heart, but harder on the fingers. For he was large. She would have to take great care when lifting heavy rocks or tearing at the ground. There were pans of soft clay along the valley beds where anyone – a child even; a child would not resist the opportunity to make its mark in clay – could crack a hole in the earth simply by stamping. But the higher ground where Musa's body would be safe from floods was biscuity like ash-fired pot. Underneath the biscuit there were stones.
Miri hunted for a burial place with views across the salty valley. It was not long before she'd found the perfect spot, an open scarp, backed by low, coppery cliffs, pock-marked by many caves and – it was spring – discoloured by the opposing red of scrub poppies. The world from there would seem large and borderless, she thought, and that would be appropriate for a traveller like Musa whose excursions had been ceaseless while he lived and who would soon find that death was large and borderless as well.
It was a tender day for widowhood, warm and clear and breathless. There in the sinking distance, two days' walk away at most, was the heavy sea below Jericho, and then the cliffs of sodium and brine, the careworn hills, the bluing heights of Moab, and finally (because she could not think that there was any heaven in this place) the rifting, hard-faced sky. It was clouded only by the arrowed streamers of the spring birds, heading for the Danube from the Nile.
What better place to pass eternity?
But for the living Miri it was hard. She felt large and borderless herself So far her marriage – a few months old, and to a younger, tougher man – was inflexible and empty, a fired pot, a biscuit underlain with stones. At least, she thought, she could be more eager and more dutiful with her husband's dead body than she had been with his living one. She'd bury him with care, as deep as possible. She wouldn't let him face into the view, throughout eternity, across to Moab and beyond. She'd bury him face down, as was the custom for a man who had no heirs (not yet, at least), so that he'd copulate for ever with the earth and all his sons and daughters would be soil.
She put her fingers on the ground, pulled loose the first of many hundred stones, and tried to open up a grave.CHAPTER 3
The salty scrubland was a lazy and malicious host. Even lizards lifted their legs for fear of touching it too firmly. Why should it, then, disturb itself for human travellers – a pregnant woman and the almost lifeless body of a man – no matter if they were abandoned in the furthest of the hills beyond Jerusalem and with none to turn to for some help and salutation except the land itself? It would not, normally at least, have expended its hospitality on them. It was undiscriminating in its cruelties. The scrub, at best, allowed its brief and passing guests to stub their toes on stones or snag their arms and legs on thorns. It sent these travellers to Jericho in rags. Or it lamed their animals. Or, should they spend the night with this hard scrubland as their inn, it let its snakes and scorpions take refuge underneath the covers of their beds.
Yet the scrubland welcomed Miri there, to its dead hills. It gave its hospitality to her. And should she end up on her own, she need not have much cause to fear the night, or hunger, or the animals. It would use what little skills it had to make her life more comfortable, to keep her bedding free from scorpions, her skin unsnagged by thorns, her sleep unbroken. And if it could, it would direct some rainfall to her tent or save her billy from a fall or drive gazelles towards her traps. It would be the one – hooded in a brown mantle – whose breathing twinned with hers. It would be the one, mistaken for a thorn bush or a breeze, that rustled at her side. It would be her shoulder-blades, and then the one that brushed the sand-flies from her lips and eyes. It was bewitched by her already, if that is possible, if the land can be allowed a heart. The stone had stubbed itself upon the toe. The earth was showing kindness to the flesh. It let her pull its stones quite readily out of the ground, so that her husband's grave grew waist-deep without exhausting her and causing any strains. She only broke her nails, though there were some cuts and bruises on her knees. The torment of her buttocks and her thighs was even eased a little by the exercise.
So this is happiness, she thought. Or this, at least, is what adds up to happiness. Here was the mix that she'd been praying for. There's hardship and bad luck in happiness, for sure. There's broken nails. There's blood. There's solitude. But there was the prospect, too, with Musa dead, of sleeping peacefully without his bruising fingers in her flesh, of never running after men and camels any more, of being Miri without shame or hesitation, of letting drop her headscarf for a change and loosening her hair from its tight knots so that nothing intervened between her and the sky.
Indeed, her headscarf was pulled off. Her coils of hair were left to drop and unravel on their own. She then lay back beside her husband's grave, put her uncovered head on stones and, open-eyed, the sky her comfort sheet, she almost slept. She was exhausted and invincible. Her pregnancy had made her so; exhausted by the digging and the dying; invincible because that pulsing in her womb was doughty, irresistible. What greater triumph could there be than that – to cultivate a second, tiny heart?
She had been told, when she was small, that the sky was a hard dish. She might bruise her fists on it if only she could fly. It was a gently rounded dish, blue when not obscured by clouds or night or shuddered into pinks and greys and whites by the caprices of the sun. But now she raised her hands into the unresisting air above the open grave and wondered if the dish were soft. And she could fly right through it, only slowed and coddled by its softness, like passing through the heavy, goaty curtains of her tent, like squeezing through the tough and cushioned alleys of the flesh, to take a place in heaven if she wanted, or to find that place on earth where she'd be undisturbed.
Excerpted from Quarantine by Jim Crace. Copyright © 1998 Jim Crace. Excerpted by permission of Picador.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
What People are Saying About This
...[O]ne of the most passionately imagined novels I have read.
Reading Group Guide
Judea, two thousand years ago: it is the first new moon of spring. Several travelers have gathered at a group of remote desert caves: an aged Jew stricken by cancer, a wild desert dweller, a handsome blond man searching for enlightenment, and a childless woman who longs for a baby. The final, and most mysterious, pilgrim is a young Galilean named Jesus who hopes, perhaps alone among them, to come face-to-face with god.
Crace's compelling rendition of the forty-day "quarantine" is a first-rate work of literature, a repository of poetry, powerful images, and gritty realism. Furthermore, it is also a bold philosophical statement, an unconventional and sometimes shocking recasting of the nebulous, rumor-shrouded events that have molded and influenced much of the world's character and history for the past two thousand years.
1. Crace uses the following epigraph from The Limits of Mortality at the beginning of the book: "An ordinary man of average weight and fitness embarking on a total fast-that is, a fast during which he refuses both his food and drink-could not expect to live for more than thirty days, nor to be conscious for more than twenty-five. For him, the forty days of fasting described in religious texts would not be achievable -- except with divine help, of course. History, however, does not record an intervention of that kind, and medicine opposes it." Why do you think Crace uses this for an epigraph, and what does this tell us about his intentions?
2. "The scrubland welcomed Miri"(p.8). By what means does Crace give the landscape a character, and what sort of character is it? Who thrives in this landscape; what human characteristics does it favor? What does the landscape's welcoming of Miri tell us about Miri herself? Do you feel that the author loves, hates, or fears the desert? What words and terms does he use to describe the landscape's peculiar sensuality?
3. Why does Crace use "quarantine" as a term for the traditional forty-day fast period, and why do you think he has chosen it as the title for his book?
4. Telling of Jesus' past, the narrator says, "He had been standing at the window of his father's workshop and god had called his name" (p.22). Here, and in later portions of the book, does the narrator imply that this calling came purely and simply from Jesus' imagination? Why has Crace chosen not to capitalize the word "god"?
5. In Musa's tent, Jesus tells himself: "He had to leave this sick man on his own to die. Otherwise he'd never reach the cave; he'd miss the start of quarantine" (p.26). Is this decision a cowardly or selfish one on Jesus' part? Does it invalidate what he was trying to achieve by his quarantine? Does the author imply that Jesus' touch healed Musa, or that Musa would have recovered anyway?
6. What do the lives of Marta and Miri tell us about the condition of women in their culture? What was their role, and how were they regarded by the male half of the population? What is their opinion of men and marriage? In what fundamental ways do the women in this novel differ in character from the men?
7. "But Jesus had not come this far to witness only godless routines of the sun and sky and sea. He had to take each shift of light, each colouring, each shadow of a bird to be the evidence of god. He had to persuade himself, before the forty days were up, that he'd been awarded a brief view of god's kingdom" (p.81). Jesus was "a man who was in the mood to divine grand meanings in the simplest acts. There'd be no god without such men" (p.128). What do these quotations imply about the nature of Jesus as a human being? About the nature of religion as a phenomenon?
8. During Jesus' sufferings, he mistakes Musa for the devil. Is Jesus' identification of Musa as the devil possibly a correct one; that is, is Musa purely evil? In what ways does Musa resemble, or not resemble, the New Testament devil?
9. Just before he dies, Jesus hears a voice "not Jewish and not Greek" (p.192). "The voice took charge of him. It walked him to the row of distant caves." To what extent does the narrator make you believe, or disbelieve, in Jesus' supernatural inspiration?
10. Musa has a vision of Jesus after Jesus' death (pp.204-6). Is Musa changed in any substantial way after this vision? Are any of the others fundamentally changed after their quarantine? If so, in what way? Do these changes occur as a result of Jesus' presence?
11. What do you think will happen to the characters after the novel closes? What will Musa do, and what role will he have in the propagation of the "Jesus sect" and, eventually, the birth of Christianity? What role, if any, will the other quarantine participants have in it?
12. Does Crace's narrative strike you as a feasible version of the real events? In your opinion, does it contain psychological truth?
13. What is religion or the religious impulse, as Crace describes it? Is it superstition and fear, or are there other, more genuinely spiritual elements?
14. In an interview (The Guardian, June 12, 1997), Crace says that he's a "post-Dawkins scientific atheist" but that his "novels are free to express, and always do express, a different viewpoint" from his own. Would you say that this is true of Quarantine -- that the novel expresses a different viewpoint from that of pure atheism?
About the Author:
Jim Crace is the author of Continent (1986), The Gift of Stones (1988), Arcadia (1992), and Signals of Distress (1994). He has been the recipient of the Whitbread First Novel Prize, the E.M. Forster Award, and the GAP International Prize for Literature. Quarantine was short-listed for the Booker Prize and won the Whitbread Novel of the Year award. Crace's novels have been translated into fourteen languages. He lives in Birmingham, England, with his wife and two children.
On Saturday, April 4th, barnesandnoble.com welcomed Jim Crace to discuss QUARANTINE.
Moderator: Welcome to our Auditorium, Jim Crace. We are pleased to have you with us tonight. Before we begin, do you have any opening comments for your online audience?
Jim Crace: Yes, please be patient. This is my first encounter with the Net. I'm a Luddite and don't plan on being online at home in England until my kids have fled the roost.
John R. from St. Petersburg, FL: Your book sounds interesting, but I have not yet read it. Could you tell us, in your own words, what it is about?
Jim Crace: Quarantine is an attempt to put the Christian religion under some hard-nosed scientific scrutiny. I take an established fact (that nobody could fast for 40 days without food and drink -- they'd die after four days) and place it at the center of the Bible story in which Jesus goes into the wilderness to fast for 40 days. So it's science versus God.
Geraldine from New York City: How do you see the character of Jesus? How does this compare with the popular image of Jesus? Did the way you view Jesus -- both as a character in your book and as a figure in Christian faith -- change in writing this book?
Jim Crace: It's always difficult writing about such a celebrated figure. Even for me -- and I'm an atheist -- just writing his name is to take on a whole load of religious and historical baggage. It helps that most of the conventional images of Christ present him as some kind of blond Scandinavian superman. I simply reminded myself that Jesus was a Palestinian Jew. He would have been swarthy and black haired. I also asked myself what kind of young man would rather spend time in prayer than in the company of his friends. An inward-looking, shy person, someone who prefers his own company to the crowd, a man who is to some extent dysfunctional. Finally, I avoided the name Jesus, and gave Christ a nickname, Gally (the Galilean). That freed up my imagination. Then I let the narrative take over.
Peter H. from Greenwich, CT: Was it difficult to write about a biblical character? What were the advantages or difficulties of undertaking such a challenge?
Jim Crace: My last answer covers most of your question. But I want to say that actually QUARANTINE was not intended to be a book about Christ at all. It was mostly going to be about the four other travelers who are in the wilderness at the same time as him. I'd refer to Christ's presence in a paragraph or two to give the novel some religious and historical provenance, and then Jesus would slip out of the narrative. But as I wrote, he elbowed his way into the story. Christian readers in Britain have said that this happened because the Grace of God was standing at my shoulder as I wrote. They're wrong. It was the imp of storytelling at my shoulder. That imp can pull the oddest tricks.
Iggy from Ft. Lauderdale, FL: It seems in all your books, at least the ones I have read (THE GIFT OF STONES, CONTINENT, and QUARANTINE) , you write vividly about places that either do not really exist, or that at least seem foreign to our existence. What attracts you to such places? Would you consider writing about somewhere familiar and modern (or have you written about such places in other books I have not yet read)? Thank you, Iggy.
Jim Crace: You're quite correct, Iggy. I like to invent places. It's fun. Big lies are always better than small ones. Most novelists choose real settings because they want to locate their readers, to give them the shock of recognition. I prefer to dislocate my readers, to take an issue that is contemporary and place it in a new context. THE GIFT OF STONES, for example, deals with the issue of how a community that loses the dignity of work can reinvent itself. It was prompted by my experience of Birmingham in the 1980s, but I set it at the end of the Stone Age. I have written two novels set in modern times, ARCADIA and CONTINENT. The next novel, BEING DEAD, is set slightly in the future.
Bennie X. from Portland, OR: What has the reaction from Christian readers been? How have they received QUARANTINE?
Jim Crace: I half expected a Christian fatwa. But I had not realized how hard it is to offend a Christian. In fact, unlike the Muslim religion, the Christian religion has always relished doubters and embraced sinners. British Christians have, so far, greeted the novel as if it is a modern scripture that underscores their beliefs rather than undermines them. I am surprised. And somewhat relieved.
Yolanda: Have your personal beliefs changed at all while writing this story? I'm not asking if you've converted, but more how this story affected you personally. If writing something as powerful as this book has changed the way you thought or felt before you began it. I think it is a wonderful book, and thank you.
Jim Crace: I'm very happy that you liked the book, Yolanda. Of course, nobody could spend a year writing on such a subject and not be affected by it. What it has done is to strengthen my atheism by making it more spiritual. I used to present my atheism as the absence of belief, a bleak and hollow thing. But now I recognize that transcendence and mysticism are not incompatible with the nonexistence of God. The power of nature and natural forces seem more worthy of our awe than the simplistic explanations of the universe dished up by religion. Atheists are the new mystics.
Morgan from Waynesboro: Have you read Norman Mailer's THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO THE SON?
Jim Crace: I have. Duty calls. Norman Mailer has written five or six of the great postwar American books. We owe him respect. But his GOSPEL was not his best. He managed to turn wine into water. A miracle of writing in reverse.
Pamela from Oak Park, IL: I have just begun reading QUARANTINE, and I think it is just beautiful, and I can't wait to finish it. I am curious to know where the story began for you. What motivated you to write it?
Jim Crace: Novels transform before your eyes as you write them. That's the joy of fiction for me. I had intended to write a book in which all the characters were troubled, living on the edge. I was interested in this subject after I had visited a hostel of 149 bedrooms near my home where mental patients were housed. I wanted to find a setting in which I could dislocate their experience. Someone sent me a postcard of the cave near Jericho where Jesus passed his 40 days. I noticed that the cliff was full of caves. One hundred and forty-nine caves at least. It was an ancient version of the hostel I had visited. That was the starting point. Then I let the story fly.
Rebecca Hewlett from Louisville, KY: Who is your favorite character in your book? Also, as an atheist, did you find it more or less difficult to write about Jesus than if you were a Christian? Thanks.
Jim Crace: My favorite character is the woman, Miri. She isn't beautiful. She isn't powerful. She isn't smooth tongued. In fact, she's nothing like a Hollywood heroine. But she is strong.
Wellington Phillips from Athens, OH: How long did it take you to write QUARANTINE?
Jim Crace: About a year. I'm a lazy writer. (What's the hurry? My readers can only tolerate about one book every three years from me.)
Bill Harries from Houston, TX: Did you know QUARANTINE would become the novel that it is when you began it? What did you originally think would happen in the story? What surprised you most while writing it?
Jim Crace: My novels are always a surprise to me. I wonder who wrote them. People who meet me can't believe that I produced the books. I'm not sufficiently intellectual or well informed. They've fallen into the trap of believing that writers must be like their books. But what is most interesting for me is how writers are different from their books. That's because a novel when it's truly underway has a wilful spirit of its own. In the case of QUARANTINE, the spirit wouldn't let me kill Jesus off entirely as I had planned. That wasn't ambiguous enough. And stories love ambiguity.
Richie Wohl from Binghamton, NY: How much of the Bible had you read before you decided to write QUARANTINE? What other research did you do?
Jim Crace: I didn't read the Bible. I only read those few verses that dealt with the wilderness days. I did very little research. I visited Judea for a few weeks in the desert, but mostly because I fancied the trip, not to do research. I needed to see the landscape so that I could tell convincing lies about it. I don't like awkward facts to get in the way of the narrative.
Muriel Ellington from Huntington, WV: What are your writing habits like? Would you say you are a disciplined writer? What do you love most about writing? Least?
Jim Crace: I pretend that I'm disciplined to my editor, my agent, my wife, and my children. I say that I start work in the morning as soon as I have walked the dog and that I stop, having completed 1,000 words, when the children return from school. The truth is that I'm easily distracted, particularly in the early chapters of a novel. I waste days sitting in the garden, pretending to solve some problem with the narrative. I do too many crosswords and ride off on my bike for no good reason. But when the book gets some wind in its sails then I become genuinely hardworking. And everybody who knows me complains that I become impossibly remote and preoccupied.
Meagan Haggarty from Arlington, VA: Are you working on a new book now? Could you tell us about it?
Jim Crace: I"m writing a novel called BEING DEAD. A cheerful little title. It's the logical book to write after QUARANTINE. It is an optimistic romance that deals with the finality of death. There is no god. There is no paradise, or judgement day, or any eternity. We draw our last breaths and that's the end. The novel tries to make some sense of that bleak fact.
Susan Burns from Sherman, TX: I read that you were a journalist until you were 40 and then turned to fiction. What caused you to do this? Do you ever go back to journalism? Do you miss it?
Jim Crace: I had an important story on a racially sensitive issue spiked by an editor of The Sunday Times who hadn't got the brains or humanity to know better. I left journalism on principle, but my first novel, CONTINENT, had just been published and was earning lots of cash. Would I have been so principled if I hadn't got the cash? I no longer do any journalism. I don't miss the work, but I do miss the colleagues, especially the photographers.
Bethany Keene from Toronto, Canada: As a writer, is there anything you seek to convey in your novels? Many authors claim to seek to explore character and human relationships, human interaction, but it seems as if there is something more going on in your novels. Do you wish to share a moral or message? If so, what is it? What message did you want to convey in QUARANTINE? Thank you. I love all your books.
Jim Crace: Thanks, Bethany. I have been more interested in the fate of communities than the fate of individuals. And the tone of my books tends to be moralistic rather than cynical or ironic in the English manner. If there is a shared "message" in any of my books it is 1) that traders, merchants, and capitalists do more harm than good; and that 2) all people are lovable despite their blemishes. That's a mild expression of something I feel passionately.
Mei from Durham, NC: Some of your prose sounds biblical in QUARANTINE -- did you intend this, or was it an effect of the subject matter or your research?
Jim Crace: Intentional. I wanted to use the same heightened language of the Bible. But I wanted my prose to have more clarity.
Pennie from Brooklyn, NY: Who are your favorite authors? Could you recommend your favorites? Also, coming from England, can you recommend any British writers we might not have heard of?
Jim Crace: I spend all day writing fiction, so I tend to avoid novels as personal reading. I like writing about the natural world. At the moment the Americans are the best at this. I read Barry Lopez, Stephen J. Gould, E. O. Wilson, and John McPhee. My all-time favorite is THE SONG OF THE DODO by David Quammen, first published in 1987. It's an adventure in island biodiversity. And it's immensely diverting and exciting. I"d sacrifice a couple of my novels just to have written a book half as good as DODO. As for English writers you won't have heard of? I'm not very up to date. But I do enjoy Will Self for his uncompromising inventiveness.
Henry P. from Bennington, VT: How do your personal beliefs affect your writing? Because it is fiction, do you think you can write a story independent of your convictions? Did your convictions change while you were writing this book, or did you at any time contradict your own beliefs with what you had written?
Jim Crace: I'd love to be an old-fashioned didactic and political writer like Orwell. But, unfortunately, that's not the hand I've been dealt. When I write polemically it always sounds like a leaflet. So I'm stuck with my sub-Magic Realism. That doesn't mean that my beliefs are sidelined. It's literature that is the sideline. I lead an active political life (on the sentimental left). It just doesn't show up in the novels.
Richard P. Anderson from Ann Arbor, MI: I think it is very interesting that you have written a book about Jesus, and yet you are an atheist. Can you tell us a bit about your personal beliefs, as well as how you view Christianity? How did this affect the direction of your book?
Jim Crace: I'm a hard-line scientific atheist. I believe that the universe was created and is controlled by natural forces, and that there is no divine power. But that does not mean that I do not have a moral code or that I am unable to respond to the startling diversity of the planet. I just do it without the help of God, that's all.
Mark S. Crichton from Rockville, MD: Do you write full time? How did you begin as a writer? Do you have any advice for a young writer? Thank you very much. I m glad to see you online.
Jim Crace: Writing novels is my only job. But it's hardly a full-time occupation. I started writing as a journalist and became relatively well known. That meant that it was easy for me to get a contract to write a novel when I wanted to. Most people don't have that luck. But I am not a cynic about the publishing industry. I do believe that if your work has talent it will be picked up by an editor somewhere. You just have to persevere, and remember always to take the challenging and ambitious route with your writing. If you set your sights low you'll write something that is unremarkable.
Elke M. Jones from Pittsburgh, PA: How did you decide who the other characters in QUARANTINE would be? We always think of Jesus in the company of the apostles, but we rarely imagine him alone with strangers. How did you decide who those strangers would be?
Jim Crace: These things just develop in the writing. I knew that I wanted a strong woman character who was barren, as that would allow me to explore some interesting themes. And I also knew that I needed the Devil's representative. But the other characters bubbled up under their own volition. The badu, for example, is discovered to be deaf about three-quarters of the way through the book. It surprises the reader. It surprised me, too, because that is not what I had intended.
Iris from Arizona: I read that you traveled to Palestine to write this book. What was your favorite place you visited? Also, does any of the geography you saw actually appear in your book?
Jim Crace: None of the real Palestine is to be found in the novel, but the spirit of the country is there, I hope. The place I liked the best was the high scrubland behind Qumran. I slept out there with Izzat, my Bedouin guide. When we woke up we were surrounded by gazelles.
Michelle R. Morgenstern from Savannah, GA: I am curious about how you went about writing the character of Jesus. What resources did you use to get to know your character?
Jim Crace: I didn't use any biblical resources. I just looked around at those young men who lived near me in Birmingham and were involved in evangelical and charismatic Christian groups. QUARANTINE was meant to be a novel with modern as well as ancient themes.
Peter Hochman from Palo Alto, CA: Why did you choose to call Jesus Gally instead of using his name all the time in your narrative?
Jim Crace: I answered this question earlier, Peter. But I think that Gally is a sweet name. It humanizes Jesus. It brings him into our universe, a young and troubled youth rather than a remote and one-dimensional icon.
Oren from Williamsburg, VA: Your description of landscape in QUARANTINE is so rich and thoroughly believable. Have you traveled to the area you described?
Jim Crace: See the earlier answer, Oren. But remember that things do not have to researched to be thoroughly believable. Humankind is a narrative animal. Storytelling is in our genes. I didn't have to go to Palestine. My landscape was invented in a converted garage in the scruffy suburb of Moseley in Birmingham, England. The trick with telling believable lies is to use convincing vocabulary with confidence.
Peter M. from Chelsea, NY: If Jesus were on a book tour today, would you recommend he fly a turboprop or jet airplane?
Jim Crace: I'd suggest that he went up onto the roof of the Temple and simply flapped his hands.
Moderator: Thank you so much for joining us tonight, Jim Crace, and taking the time to answer our questions. Any last words for your online audience before you go?
Jim Crace: Much more fun than I'd expected -- thanks mostly to the generous comments that you have made and to the intelligent questions. Many thanks, and goodnight.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I was just not able to get into this book. It was stiff, hard to follow and boring.
More than meets the idea. Simple story at first but it stays with you. Talented writer.
An imagined take of what happened during those 40 days and nights that J.C. spent in the desert and how the 20-something Galilean strange boy became the man (?) with the spiritual strength to start his ministry and preach it throughout the land. That being said, Jesus is only a minor character in this novel about the vulnerabilities of humankind. While not an amazing novel it's an interesting read nevertheless.
Read in November 2000. This is almost like Christ's journey into the desert and it is well written, making you feel the frustration of the whole situation, the harsh location, the elements ..... everything.
I know I didn't really "get" this novel. I read it based on an enthusiastic review, but was disappointed. The writing style was somewhat cryptic, and I had difficulty understanding what was motivating most of the characters. Musa (Satan, right?) is the one to spread the "good news". Why? "Quarantine" was an interesting title, evoking both the 40 days and the isolation of Jesus, with undertones of illness, but again, I'm not sure I completely understood all the implications.
Not sure why I have been drawn to "Jesus as a character" lately but I really thought a book about the 40 days in the desert would be wildly interesting. Fasting, suffering, tempting the son of god's faith all sounded like great fodder for a meditative and imaginative book. I thought. I really wanted to like this book but it just didn't move and it didn't make comtemplate faith or suffering all that much. If you are going to have a supporting cast that is intended to essentially over shadow Jesus' role than those characters have to be engaging. Overall a huge disappointment.
An interesting take on the forty days that Jesus spent fasting in the desert, with a cast of not-quite-storybook characters that you don't want to miss. Provocatively heretical and reverent all at once...my kind of Bible story.
After the disappointment that was The Pesthouse, I was pleasantly surprised by Quarantine. Each character had defining qualities that made the novel move forward. I thought it was interesting that Jesus was featured in the story but not really the main character. See, normally the Son of God gets first billing. But the novel wasn¿t about Him or His work. Very interesting. The story had a definite starting point and a definite ending, something that The Pesthouse didn¿t have. Overall, it¿s a pretty good read.
Set among religious quarantiners in the Judean desert in the time of Christ (he is one of them), this little story will hold the interest of readers curious about ascetic pursuits. But like a meal of cactus spines and pebbles, it is ultimately unsatisfying.
Goes against all learned and preconcieved ideas of how Christ could have touched the lives of people other than those told of in bibles. Excellent descriptive writing talent.