In his fifth novel, Jim Crace travels far back in time to the Judea of Jesus Christ’s era to re-create the society and spirit of a people surrounded by wonder who saw divinity as something imminent and revivifying. Christian scripture presents one version of Christ’s youthful sojourn in the desert, but Crace imagines something quite different. In place of a leering and tempting Satan, he posits far more recognizable and credible figures who yearn for faith and stumble through a world of confusion and isolation.
The novel opens with Miri attending her mortally ill husband, Musa, who lies comatose in a tent in the desert. The members of her caravan assure her they will return, but they quickly abandon her to fend for herself. In anticipation of her husband’s death, she travels into the hills and begins digging a shallow grave in the rocky soil.
In the distance, she sees four travelers and a straggler heading her way—three men, a woman, and an indeterminate fifth figure. The first four set about climbing the hills searching for caves suitable for days of fasting and prayer, while the fifth traveler, a young Jew named Jesus, stops in the merchant’s tent for a drink of water. There he discovers the dying Musa, lays his hands on the sick man’s chest, and intones a common greeting for the sick: “So, here, be well again.” When Miri returns in a day, she is shocked to discover her husband’s health restored.
Speaking to no one, Jesus climbs to the most inaccessible cave and prepares himself for his fast, one he will not break despite the customary practice of eating after sundown. At the same time, a restored Musa, a man forever conniving and alert to new commercial opportunities, convinces the other four pilgrims that all the land about them is his and that he deserves tribute in order for them to pass their time there. Gullible and frightened, the others proffer money and purchase bits of food from the merchant.
As Miri and Marta prepare a birthing blanket, Musa develops an attraction for Marta. One night he steals off to her cave and rapes and brutalizes her. Ironically, the attack also impregnates the supposedly sterile woman. At the same time he is obsessed with meeting the young Jew who restored his health. Each night, he and the other pilgrims perch themselves above Jesus’ cave and call to him. Finally, one morning they find Jesus’ broken body on the ground and place it in Musa’s grave.
Musa has convinced the other pilgrims to help him carry his possessions to Jericho, but during the journey, Shim and Badu drop their cargo and hurry ahead. Marta convinces Miri to do the same, and they escape, planning to live together with Marta’s husband in her village of Sawiya, where they will rear their children away from the merchant. Miraculously, after Musa makes his way to the city, he sees in the distance a battered figure stumbling his way out of the desert and into Jericho.
One of the most fascinating aspects of the novel is the window it provides into the pre-Christian world. Crace’s sense of place is extraordinarily vivid and precise; in fact, the author visited the same desert in which Christ is supposed to have sojourned and found hill caves much like those described in the novel. Furthermore, the descriptions of the setting are extraordinarily precise and palpable, at times even rhapsodic, as for example the description of Jesus’ first impressions:
It was not hard to worship god in the Galilee. But here spring had hardly made its mark. . . . Look at the uncompleted land, he told himself, dry-tongued, enfeebled by the labours of the walk: the valleys waiting for their rivers, the browns and yellows waiting for their greens. Creation, unfinished here. This was where the world was not complete. What better place to find his god at work?
Crace also deftly embeds a sense of the manners and mores of the era, including burial rituals—a man like Musa, with no heirs, was buried face down—and the teachings of the prophets (the world would end with the dead burying the living). One custom elaborated throughout is the weaving of a birthing blanket, which Miri patiently and painstakingly undertakes in spite of her husband’s stinginess with the necessary wool. Her odd, unlikely assortment of colors becomes a private symbol of her determination for pageantry in the face of deprivation and brutality.
The novel opens with a curious epigraph from Ellis Winward and Professor Michael Soule’s study The Limits of Mortality. The passage clearly indicates the physiological impossibility of a month or more of fasting, though it does offer the conjecture that supernatural intervention might contravene this law of probability. Thus, the novel opens...
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