We’re a week away from Christmas, the biggest festive celebration in the Western calendar. If you’re anything like me, the last few weeks will have disappeared in a blur of buying presents, decorating the tree, stock-piling food and alcohol, carousing with friends, singing carols and Christmas songs, and generally building up to the big day itself, when I’ll spend hours preparing way too much food and drinking too much in the process.
Christmas is big. But arguably Easter is more important. When I was a child the run-up to Easter, Lent, was in its own way as big as the run up to Christmas. Mum would make a huge stack of pancakes on pancake Tuesday as a last ‘treat’ before Easter. The next day, Ash Wednesday, we’d go to church and let the priest put an ashy thumbprint on our foreheads, a reminder of mortality. Ash Wednesday was a day of fasting and abstinence from meat, as was Good Friday. On Good Friday we’d line up in church to kiss the feet of Jesus on the cross before heading home to break our fast with hot cross buns. The 40 or so days in between Ash Wednesday and Good Friday was a period of self-denial. Right up until I left home I always, always gave up something I really liked and normally had every day – sweets, crisps, alcohol. (As far as I knew, this was entirely run-off-the-mill. It was only when I went to university and met a shed load of non-Catholics that I realised how out of step I was with most of my generation.)
In the same way most people don’t really think about the ‘true’ meaning of Christmas, I didn’t really think about Lent. Sure, I knew the 40-day period represented the time Jesus fasted in the wilderness and was tempted by the devil. But what would total abstinence from food for 40 days look like? Would it even be possible? I never thought about it.
Those questions are explored in Quarantine. Crace’s novel, which won Whitbread Novel of the Year in 1997, is a fictional re-imaging of Jesus’ time in the Judean desert. The title refers to the duration of the fast (from the Italian “quarantina” meaning “forty days”.).
In Crace’s story, Jesus is not alone in the desert. There are four other travellers who have also come there to pray and fast: Shim, a foreigner from the North; Aphas, a frail old man from Jerusalem; Marta, from a place near Jerusalem, who needs to get pregnant or her husband will turn her out; a badu villager from the deserts in the south. When they arrive at the caves where they will spend their quarantine, they find two others: the bully-boy merchant Musa, and his pregnant wife, Miri, both left behind by their caravan of relatives when Musa falls ill.
The four other quarantiners drink water and break their fast once a day. Jesus on the other hand sets himself a much harsher challenge: total abstinence from food and drink. This goes further than any of the gospels^ and is impossible, science tells us. Crace, as the best authors do, takes an idea and explores its outer limits. On the one hand Quarantine is gritty: there is animal cruelty, wife-beating, rape, graphic depiction of a human body denied food and water. Yet Quarantine is also touched by the mystical: there are dreams, revelations, visions, mirages. There is friendship and faith – and the ending offers an ingenious take on how the “good news” came to be preached.
Rating: ***** (Possibly I’m feeling generous because it’s Christmas but I’d say this is one of the best books I’ve ever read)
PS. The ability to go without food seems to be an enduring fascination. My reading list includes The Wonder by Emma Donoghue (author of The Room). Donoghue’s novel was inspired by numerous cases of ‘fasting girls’ from the sixteenth century right through to the twentieth century and has recently been made into a Netflix film starring Florence Pugh.
^ When I retrieved my 40+ year-old copy of the Jerusalem bible from the bookshelf, it turns out the gospels say very little about Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness. John’s gospel does not mention it at all. Mark covers it in less than three lines is silent about fasting. Matthew says Jesus fasted, without further expansion. Luke is the most expansive, saying Jesus ate nothing during that time. Both Matthew and Luke say Jesus was hungry but do not mention thirst, which tends to suggest he didn’t go without water. Which begs the question: how long can the human body survive without food? It seems there is no easy one-size-fits-all answer; factors such as age, sex, starting weight, health, and water intake all play a role. That said, most estimates suggest it’s possible to go without food for up to two months. In 2003, the American illusionist David Blaine spent 44 days without food suspended in a glass box by the River Thames in London. In 1981, IRA prisoner Bobby Sands died in Northern Ireland’s Maze prison after a hunger strike lasting 66 days. Jesus’ 40-day fast would therefore be theoretically tenable, assuming he had water.
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