In 'Quarantine,' a Great Story Mercilessly Retold

Bret Anthony Johnston

hide captionBret Anthony Johnston wrote Corpus Christi: Stories — a collection named a book of the year by The Independent of London and The Irish Times. A graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop, he's written essays for the online magazine Slate and NPR's All Things Considered. He's been a skateboarder for almost 20 years, and to everyone's surprise, not least his own, he is a professor of creative writing at Harvard.

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Here's how Jim Crace's novel Quarantine opens: Miri, a young pregnant woman, is holding vigil over her dying husband. This is in the Judean desert, 2,000 years ago. Death is coming slowly and with blistering heat; it turns her husband's tongue black. To travelers heading toward Jericho, Miri epitomizes the grieving wife. Really, though, she's rejoicing: Musa, her husband, has routinely beaten and raped her, and now, finally, his dying promises salvation. Or it would have, had Jesus not stopped in and miraculously ruined everything.

In fairness, Jesus doesn't mean to ruin everything. He doesn't even know if He's the Christ. This is Crace's genius: He takes a familiar story, Jesus' 40 nights in the wilderness — the titular quarantine — and he vividly reimagines it. The result is beautiful and merciless fiction, not like a secular prayer, but like the answer to one.

Ever since graduate school, where all of us wannabe writers studied Crace's novel like scripture, I've read the book about once a year. I can't get over the shimmering prose or the author's unwavering confidence or the way he freights the most innocuous detail with meaning and tension. Like when Jesus, upon leaving the dying Musa's tent, says, "Be Well." This was the first-century equivalent of "See you later," unless, of course, you're the Son of God. From Jesus' lips, the words are tonic: Within hours, Musa is, in fact, "well," and that's when the sand really hits the fan.

Allegorically, Musa is Satan. As other pilgrims file into the desert, hoping to cleanse themselves of madness, cancer and infertility, Musa cons and terrorizes them. And he tempts Jesus — with food, water, doubt. He's an awful villain, but what's most compelling, and most frightening, is his potential for grace: Of everyone in the novel, including Jesus, this hideous brute alone recognizes the Messiah for who He is. In the end — and the novel's ending is a drastically realistic revision of what happens in the Bible — Musa's wickedness is as human as it is devilish as it is captivating.

Equally captivating is Jesus' complex innocence. My favorite moment is when, after praying so long that "the common words lost hold of sound" and "the consonants collapsed," Jesus receives His first missive from God: A dead donkey falls from heaven and thuds to earth. A clearer symbol there never was, and the vision animates Jesus' resolve. Does it matter that Musa has made his wife drag that very donkey away from their tent? Or that we just watched two desert dwellers roll it over the cliff, the cliff right above where Jesus prays for a sign from God?

It doesn't matter to me; actually, the ambiguity of the miracle fills me with hope, with reverence: Who among us can judge the articles of another's faith?

Quarantine is a book about science and divinity, about hunger and heat and thirst and faith. But more than all of that, it's about perspective, about the uniquely human capacity to crave meaning, about our fundamental need to believe. I'm not a very religious person, and I'd wager the author isn't either, but this novel, unlike most I read, always leaves me in a state of rapture, as if I'd received a revelation of my own.

You Must Read This is produced and edited by Ellen Silva.

Excerpt: 'Quarantine'

Quarantine Book Cover

Quarantine: A Novel

by Jim Crace

Paperback, 256 pages

List Price: $14.00

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 fr 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.

Excerpt from Quarantine by Jim Crace. Copyright © 1998 by Jim Crace. Reprinted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC.

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