The book group assembled on a misty, moisty evening in May, the last Thursday of the month. As we awaited possible new arrivals, one of our number recounted tales of his hedonistic youth as a possible antidote to the spiritual discussions to follow. We assumed the missing members were pursuing their own pleasures elsewhere. As we commenced our discussion, our group of five hardy souls placed great literature over the such pursuits, saving the odd glass of wine or bottle of beer, of course.
Unusually, the proposer prefaced the discussion by showing two short videos made by the respective authors. Crace, born 1947, talked of his love or travel and how, aged 8 or 9, he invented islands and other settings named after his school teachers or famous writers. This line of development followed through to his books, many times set in new, imagined lands. Although owing much to the imagination, as a group we thought the milieu of Quarantine was fairly well defined by the biblical setting,
Further reinforced by his lack of research, Crace acknowledged he tended to ‘wing it’ in his wonderful descriptions of life in the desert. In Quarantine, he creates a believable world out of a series of interesting characters, but not all is as it seems. For example, he acknowledges the medical quote at the start of Quarantine is fictitious. We loved his description of the weaving process and of the bees as a bait to catch the bird, but forewarned by the video we realized that we should not take these descriptions as ‘Gospel’.
In contrast, Coelho, born in 1946, explained the process of writing a book. He touched on the necessity of experience in writing, citing Proust and Joyce as authors who worked more from imagination, but likening himself more to Hemingway, as requiring real knowledge of events. Coelho suggested he needed a constant challenge to avoid boredom, he associated this with travel and so he ‘hit the road’. Activity and energy are considered virtues in The Alchemist. A journey may have an unknown destination and so the traveler is open to adventure, thus avoiding boredom. As he travels, this author needs to share his experience, writing a book.
Why did the proposer link these books? Both were very successful, and have some common themes. Each is set in a desert, has mystical quality, is allegorical, and raises big questions through small events. The language contrasts. Coelho uses a deceptively limited prose but Crace’s use of language is more stylised, complex, and poetical. Crace comes from an atheistic perspective, yet there are hints of the religious in his novel, or so we thought. Did we? Well, it may be that each reader takes from these books that which confirms his or her own beliefs; this was a recurring topic.
There was some dispute about the theme of Christianity within Quarantine; perhaps the portrayal of Jesus as a poor, deluded and not very competent carpenter is intended to give the lie to Christianity, and of Musa as a most excellent villain of human origin to deny the Devil. Yet, the characters interpret everything as signs from God. How should Jesus appear? How should the Devil be pictured? Perhaps Crace does protest too much? Protest or not, the slight majority were in favour of the atheist perspective in Quarantine.
Crace himself has argued “The novel would erase two thousand years of Christianity. This would be my party-pooper for the Millennium. Indeed, Quarantine did slay Christ. But novels have a way of breaking loose from their creators. Science does not triumph unambiguously in the book. Faith is not destroyed by Doubt. Jesus does not let me kill him off entirely.” So who stands at Crace’s shoulder, is it the “imp of storytelling” as he contends, or the “Grace of God”
The proposer commented on the appropriateness of metaphors and similes to the period and setting in Quarantine –e.g. “she was possessed by hope, as madly and absurdly, as sweetly and as helplessly, as a melon taken over as a nest by bees.”, or “The pain ran up his veins like fire up oil-soaked thread”. The novel expressed the sheer physicality of Crace’s world, especially in the description of Jesus’s body falling apart – “his liver and his kidneys fought for fuel like squalid desert boys battling for a piece of wood”. Wow!
Coelho’s book is not specifically Christian, but deals with major issues of fate (“Makhtub”), of the dangers of fear and of loss, how the boy, Santiago, must give up his money and even personal relationships to travel on in search of his personal destiny. He writes of communion with nature throughout the book, but especially latterly as he converses with the Sun and becomes the Wind…”The Soul of the World surged within him”, He talks of universal truth, and of how each material has its place in the world, lead as well as gold. What of the alchemist, what of alchemy? Santiago, has many guides (or the same guide in many guises?), the old woman, the old man, the king, the alchemist, and this book has a decided spiritual theme. Perhaps more than any other novel it has caused its readers to question how they best spend their time on earth, if not beyond.
Coelho suggests living in the present, not in the past, not in the future. “Most people see the world as a threatening place, and because they do, the world turns out to be, indeed, a threatening place”. Conversely, Santiago is advised that “the universe always conspires in your favour”. To fulfill your destiny, you have to be at one with the Soul of the World, and to cast aside fear, following omens and your dreams. What do you seek? Well “everyone on earth has a treasure that awaits them” … hmmm, not beyond the earth, then? Discuss, and we did.
And so is this Alchemy the ridding of base impurities to achieve a higher state of being, a destiny? What of the basic truth that can be found within base metal? What of the elixir of life; can this only be found through personal journey, leaving behind the sheep, the crystal glass and accumulated wealth that hinder our true path? To what extent is the journey metaphorical, to what extent literal? First, does travel lead to necessary new experience, (as Coelho craves) through place or human contact? Santiago’s father suggests that people come to his village “in search of new things, but when they leave, they are basically the same people they were when they arrived”. “They’re the same as the people who live here”. Who is Santiago’s father speaking for? Does the author express his own ideas through his character, or is not the character formed to express a contrary, and in the author’s view, incorrect opinion, and hence speaks his own words”. Is travel a necessary but not sufficient condition for personal enlightenment? Yes, said the majority present. Is the mental state, to follow omens and dreams, to cast aside fear, the only necessary condition, such that physical travel is only metaphorical? Yes, said the minority. At the end, Santiago thinks of the many roads he had travelled, and of the strange way God had shown him his treasure. (Yes, God has shown him his treasure.). The treasure was at the base of a sycamore in his home town. The wind, the same wind into which he had turned, was universal…not so simple then. Does the intention of the author preclude other interpretation, assuming we and the author know his intention? There is a lot to concern us.
Speaking of authors’ intentions, we compared the prefaces of the older and newer editions of the book. Whereas the older version told of the humble monk who pleased the bay Jesus by juggling oranges, true to his place in the world, the latter seemed to boast of book sales to Bill Clinton, and Julia Roberts. I haven’t got that text but how did that creep in? This doesn’t sound like good advice for Santiago, but maybe this is just the publicity machine.
We returned to Quarantine, and some historical perspective. Given that Crace admitted the odd invention, was it common practice to fast, daily in the wilderness during that period, and was the title well chosen? One of our number informed us that the title was based on the 14th century practice of isolating travelers for forty days in Italy during the Black death (quaranta giorna), extended from the original 30 days. So there could be no naming of Quarantiners as such more than 30 years before the Black Death. Of course, Jesus did indeed spend 40 days fasting in the wilderness, the basis of Lent. Perhaps, the title was well chosen in the sense of the 40 days of fast and healing through prayer, of healing Musa and the others, of the liberation of Mira and Marta. However, the proposer took Crace’s stated view that this Jesus was misguided, Musa a simple liar, not the Devil incarnate, and this tale offered no comfort in Christianity. The idea that Musa would later profit from his re-telling of the tale of the wilderness in such a cynical fashion was inspired. In passing, we all agreed that Musa was a cracking villain, right up there amongst the best in modern literature. However, surely his power was barely credible, particularly as he was so immobile. Are the Quarantiners really so gullible? It certainly adds to the story.
The proposer further contrasted the setting of Quarantine with the journey of The Alchemist. He talked of the characters as like people stuck in a lift, lacking the capacity for travel, adventure and change. The Alchemist emphasized the long tradition of the traveler, meeting new people, changing behaviour to suit different times and different environments. He commented also that the harsher the environment the more hospitable people become. In each of these books,, the desert is well depicted as that most inhospitable of environments in all senses of the word.
So if travel is depicted as essential in the Alchemist, what does this say of the virtues of stable relationships, we wondered? Santiago leaves his true love to travel on; he would always have it in mind that he should travel on his spiritual quest. Whereas the Englishman tries to learn from books, mistakenly perhaps, Santiago learns from action. However, we should pause. Several posed questions. Does marriage interrupt your personal calling? Does everyday life get in the way? Are you ever too old? Is hedonism a respectable quest? What is your personal elixir of life? Coelho writes beautifully, simply, in a very imaginative style of the several omens and their significance. This ‘simple’ book makes you reflect on your own life and as such has proved a best seller across the world.
We returned to historical context, and talked of the influence of the Moors – the Moorish culture has significance and Santiago travels from his home in Spain to North Africa. The fact of historical context makes the men the dominant characters; is this unfortunate?
Finally we took a rough poll, which of the two books did we prefer? On balance, and like the rest of the world, the majority preferred Coelho, dealing with universal truths, rather than Crace, an alternative telling or explanation of the birth of Christianity. However, we would continue to interpret the atheist or religious content of the book in accordance with our own histories.