Thursday, April 11, 2013

The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder

Rating: 4 Stars

1928 Pulitzer Prize Winner

“…soon we shall die and all memory of those five will have left the earth, and we ourselves shall be loved for a while and forgotten. But the love will have been enough; all those impulses of love return to the love that made them. Even memory is not necessary for love. There is a land of the living and a land of the dead and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning.”

On July 20, 1714, an ancient bridge collapses, and five travelers plunge to their doom. The tragedy is witnessed by a Franciscan missionary who is so profoundly moved by the incident that he sets out to seek meaning behind the victims’ sudden deaths.

Starting from this premise, the novel opens with the inquiry into the lives of three of the main characters. Whether it’s a sad woman frantically nurturing her relationship with the daughter who spurns her; or, a brother in anguish over his irreparable loss; or, a caring mentor attempting to help his stricken protégée - the common thread in their lives is love, flawed, yet still sublime.

Thornton Wilder’s classic novel is based loosely on real life characters, and the titular bridge was inspired by a famed Peruvian bridge that spanned the Apurímac River. Wilder’s technique was greatly influenced by his study of classic French literature. The lucid style though emotionally detached is nevertheless deeply compassionate, and his character portraits are indelible. A passage that lingers in the memory is the description of the Archbishop of Lima:

“Between the rolls of flesh that surrounded them looked out two black eyes speaking discomfort, kindliness and wit. A curious and eager soul was imprisoned in all this lard…the distress of remorse was less poignant than the distress of fasting and he was presently found deliberating over the secret messages that a certain roast sends to the certain salad that will follow it. And to punish himself he led an exemplary life in every other respect.”

Though Wilder did not visit Peru until 1941 he is able to evoke the sensibility that we associate with Latin American authors. Like them he too mines the heart for its mysteries. Though Father Juniper attempts to tabulate human virtue and thus make sense of tragedy, the author is graceful in highlighting the impenetrability of cosmic design. 

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