Temptation in the Wilderness

By Jim
Farrar Straus Giroux. 243 pp. $23


Though the biblical account of Jesus’ 40 days in the desert and his temptation there by the devil takes up only a few lines in the gospels, the story — which follows his baptism and precedes his public ministry — has always been seen as pivotal. Now, in the novel Quarantine, the English writer Jim Grace asks the question: If Jesus did in fact go into the desert after his baptism, what might really have happened there?

In this dry, precise, often hypnotic narrative — which won last year’s Whitbread Prize and was shortlisted for the Booker — Jesus is only one of several sojourners whose paths cross in the wilderness. Musa, a bully, and his pregnant, put-upon wife, Mira, are members of a caravan left behind to fend for themselves when Musa grows deathly ill. Others have traveled to the desert to fast and seek divine favor: The tall, barren Marta hopes to be made fertile; Aphas, old and sick, prays for health; Shim, an unusually handsome young gentile widely respected for his wisdom and godliness, is continuing a lifelong spiritual quest. Hounding out the dramatis personae is a nameless, uncommunicative little desert nomad — a badu — whom the others consider a savage.

Jesus is introduced with an irony. He happens along just as Musa is about to die and cures him, and everyone suffers as a result: not only does Miri end up back under Musa’s thumb, but Musa torments the other pilgrims as well, telling them he owns the land they’re on and demanding rent. That Jesus’s miracle ends up benefiting a tyrant and harming innocents is typical of this novel, which, while making the Nazarene an authentic worker of miracles, refuses to imagine the circumstances of these miracles in any other than the most harshly realistic terms.

Indeed, to read Quarantine is to be struck by its bracingly unsentimental picture of the human animal — for though Satan as such never appears, evil is palpably present in this company. The mastery with which Crace sustains an extreme austerity of tone, tautness of style, and strangeness and intensity of vision — all the while vividly capturing the desert setting and credibly imagining the thought processes of ancient tribal folk — is, moreover, immensely impressive. This novel is a high-wire act, a tour de force, a garment expertly tailored from materials of the highest quality — though it is, perhaps, more the sort of garment that a keen-eyed observer quietly admires for its craftsmanship than the sort that turns heads with its dazzling colors or daring cut.

Yet in many ways this sober, meticulous novel is daring. Not only does Crace have the audacity to make Jesus a virtual secondary character; he serves up a Jesus whose personal imperfections — he’s shy, fearful, petulant, self-absorbed, physically weak, uncertain in his beliefs, and even “a clumsy carpenter” (“he would have built a leaking ark”) — might induce many a conservative Christian to denounce this book as sacrilegious. As if that weren’t enough, Crace gives us in Shim a Hellenist conspicuous not only for his physical attractiveness but also for a theology that secular and liberal Christian readers may find more sophisticated and palatable than that of Crace’s Jesus. “My god,” declares the cosmopolitan, multilingual Shim, “is not a holy king, an emperor in heaven. He’s immanent in everything.” To be sure, Crace’s Jesus, too, lives in a world “where everything was touched with holiness” — but he is also a superstitious, illiterate legalist with “a village view of god,” whom he envisions as a “hard and muscular” father. For Crace’s Jesus, only Jews are God’s children; he pities gentiles, who (he believes) live outside of divine grace and salvation.

 One peculiarity of this novel is that much of it consists of long unbroken stretches of iambs; many sentences, in fact, read like perfect iambic pentameter lines. Such sentences abound most noticeably in the chapter introducing Jesus. We’re told he’s devout: “He’d put his trust in god, as young men do.” He’s had experience walking barefoot: “He’d learnt the single lesson of the thorn.” And why has he come to the desert? “This was where the world was not complete. What better place to find his god at work?” Iambs also proliferate in the later passages on Jesus: “He did not need to move his lips to pray. He’d reached the stage where every breath was prayer….” Many of these five-foot sentences are arresting, even epigrammatic. (“When fear and shame are comrades, tongues lie still.”) But the odd alternation between strict iambic meter and looser, prosier rhythms ultimately proves distracting. Did Crace, one finds oneself wondering, initially write this book {or part of it) as a blank-verse narrative? Whatever the case, and whatever one’s misgivings about the book’s rhythms or its interpretation of Jesus, the fact remains that Crace has carried off a daunting task with an artistry and imaginative power that many others — one thinks particularly of Norman Mailer, author of last year’s hollow Gospel According to the Son — might well envy.