IN THE JUDEAN DESERT
Commentary by Tony Cassar Darien
Jim Crace’s fifth novel Quarantine is a novel-fable that relates a highly imaginative account of Jesus Christ’s forty-day sojourn in the wilderness that is the Judean desert.
Of course the evangelists Mark, Matthew and Luke have referred to this curious episode in their Gospels, while Milton’s short epic, Paradise Regained, has expanded on this bizarre happening where Jesus resists all the wily temptations proferred to Him by the Prince of Darkness.
Crace’s Jesus is a far cry from the images drawn by the likes of Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Fra Angelico and many of the other masters. Neither does He resemble the genre as depicted by the big budget Sword-and-Sandle epics like Ben Hur, Quo Vadis, The Robe and other blockbusters, released by Hollywood in the late fifties and early sixties.
This Jesus is a very ordinary young peasant from Galilee whose too facile piousness unnerves even his parents. When He abandons His family’s carpentry business in search of God, He exiles Himself to the utter barreness, and the glaring heat that marks the Judean desert. He seeks out a desolate cave hewn out of tough rock and from where he rarely emerges. It is where he plans to encounter and get to know His God during His planned forty days of quarantine, aided and abetted by silence, solitude, meditation and sheer hardship.
However, the savage cragged wilderness is also home to an assortment of other quarantiners. These include Musa, a stout, arrogant, lecherous merchant whose long suffering wife, Miri, has left him for dead in his lavish tent. In walking away from her moribund husband, Miri feels relieved and excited about the prospects that lie in store for her, in a liberated life, free from the detestable relationship of her oppressive hubby.
Marta is a handsome, prosperous but barren woman who yearns above everything else to conceive. Shim is a self-absorbed ascetic; and Aphas, an elderly jew, is diseased with cancer.
After Jesus, Who seems to have been obsessed with being a healer, succeeds in bringing Musa back to life, the bullying merchant strives to dominate the other quarantiners, by convincing them that he is their lord and they thus own him their everlasting tribute. (Since this fictional novel purports to be a reconstruction of the Biblical story, such a nasty character is an obvious allegory of Satan.) Musa’s only problem lies with Jesus, Whose unpredictability confounds him. In turn Jesus constantly tries to avoid any form of contact with the other quarantiners by venturing as little as possible, from of his cave of solitude.
The crux of Crace’s mystical plot, elegantly expressed in an elegant and powerful prose, describes how these six desert dwellers relate with one another.
Seasoned poet and writer Charles Flores, who has a degree in Theology from the University of Malta, has admirably succeeded into adding a Maltese translation to the already existing twenty-versions of Crace’s opus. Nothing about this story is quite straightforward. It is compiled from bits and chunks of many subjects. There’s nature, divinity, science, heat, hunger and thirst, man’s strengths, weaknesses and obsessions with the gods of our faith or our making. Not one given easily to generalisations, whom I consider even more odious than comparisons, I must confess to being struck by how both the terminology and the vernacular, as employed by Flores, have managed to convey the author’s original intentions, while registering a smooth transparency throughout the myriad of cultural and regional differences between the languages.
Published by Horizon Books in a hardback edition, the book features a handsome dustjacket based on an attractive painting in oil on canvas by Gozitan artist Aaron Formosa, aptly entitled The Temptation of Christ. The original work is exhibited at Muzew il-Hagar, Rabat, Gozo.