The Bridge of San Luis Rey (Thornton Wilder)

I was reminded of this book after reading Turn Right at Macchu Picchu.  For their extensive network of roads to function in the Peruvian mountains, the Inca needed bridges to cross rivers and gorges.  So they engineered them out of grass.  Of course a grass bridge requires constant maintenance to stay together.  But don’t let the impermanence fool you:  the Incas’ bridges not only spanned longer distances than contemporary European bridges built of more permanent materials, but were incredibly strong.  It was truly a marvel of engineering.

Nowadays grass bridges are a thing of the past (except for one, Q’eswachaka, which is lovingly maintained by dedicated locals using traditional methods – see video in the link above).  They are, however, immortalized in art in The Bridge of San Luis Rey.

The inciting incident of The Bridge of San Luis Rey – the collapse of a grass bridge that kills five people – actually happens near the end of the story’s timeline, but is presented first.  A monk, Brother Juniper, who was on his way to cross the bridge himself, sees the accident happen from a distance and immediately wonders why.  Why specifically did those five people die?  What does it all mean in God’s grand plan?  Or as Wilder himself described the central question of the work, “Is there a direction and meaning in lives beyond the individual’s own will?”  Brother Juniper sets out to research the lives of the five victims and discover God’s will in the accident.  The rest of the book is a look at these five interconnected lives – and Brother Juniper’s ultimate failure to find reason behind their deaths.

The story is in five chapters:  a brief introduction, a slight longer conclusion, and in the middle three chapters that each focus on a different victim of the accident.  Dona Maria, the Marquesa de Montemayor;  Esteban, one half of a twin;  and Uncle Pio (who is in fact nobody’s real uncle).  These three never meet, but their lives pass near each other via other characters.  Camila Perichole, an actress, and Madre Maria del Pilar, abbess of the Convent of Santa Maria Rosa de las Rosas, are two of the most important.

If there is a common theme to these three characters’ stories, it is a mismatch in love.  Not of the romantic type, as in unrequited love;  but relationships that turn out to have differing, and often unspoken, expectations on each side.  Wilder gets the point across better than I can.

Now he discovered that secret from which one never quite recovers, that even in the most perfect love one person loves less profoundly than the other.  There may be two equally good, equally gifted, equally beautiful, but there may never be two that love one another equally well.

Esteban and his twin Manuel are inseparable, almost spiritually bonded, and have never had to incorporate any outside relationships – until Manuel falls for the unattainable Perichole.  Esteban is left feeling betrayed and abandoned.  The Marquesa is a shy introvert who would rather have stayed single, but was forced into an economic marriage to a man she didn’t love.  To cope with this, she throws all her love into her daughter Clara instead.  But Clara and her mother just don’t click, Clara finds her mother’s love suffocating, so she marries and moves to Spain.  The Marquesa writes long, exquisite letters in an effort to make Clara love her (and of course it never works).  Uncle Pio discovers the Perichole as a child singing in cafes.  He takes her in, determined to mold her into a gifted artist.  They bond almost like father and daughter.  She becomes wildly successful, then begins to move in high society.  At first Uncle Pio loves this because it improves her art.  But eventually her interest in art wanes, and she would rather become a lady – and Uncle Pio becomes an unwelcome reminder of her former life.

Brother Juniper, meanwhile, is determined to find proof of the hand of God in the accident.  There must be some order, some reason behind who lived and who died.  But try as he might, he cannot settle the point in his own mind.  He writes a book about the accident with his attempted justifications, which are not fully convincing even to him.  Then the book is deemed heretical and Brother Juniper is burned at the stake.  As he dies for writing a book he intended for good, he still cannot find any sense in it all.

Wilder’s own thoughts on the story are relevant here.

…the central idea of the work, the justification for a number of human lives that comes up as a result of the sudden collapse of a bridge, stems from friendly arguments with my father, a strict Calvinist.  Strict Puritans imagine God all too easily as a petty schoolmaster who minutely weights guilt against merit, and they overlook God’s ‘Caritas’ which is more all-encompassing and powerful.  God’s love has to transcend his just retribution.  But in my novel I have left this question unanswered.  As I said earlier, we can only pose the question correctly and clearly, and have faith one will ask the question the right way.

It’s no surprise Brother Juniper cannot find “the answer” to this particular puzzle, as the problem of evil is one of the most vexing in all theology and philosophy.  No system really offers a fully satisfactory answer to it.  But I think we can say a few things for certain.  One, if you’re not bothered by the problem of evil, you’re either not paying attention or you’re a sociopath.  So Brother Juniper’s discomfort is natural and even healthy.  Two, though his discomfort may be normal, Brother Juniper’s method – delving into tiny details of biography trying to discover who sinned – is doomed to fail.  The Bible itself even indicates this, straight from Jesus’ own mouth.

Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices.  Jesus answered, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way?  I tell you, no!  But unless you repent, you too will all perish.  Or those eighteen who died when the tower of Siloam fell on them – do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem?  I tell you, no!  But unless you repent, you too will all perish.”  (Luke 13:1-5)

…not to mention a ton of Psalms bemoaning that the wicked prosper while the righteous suffer, and, oh yeah, the entire book of Ecclesiastes.  So wherever we come down on the answer to this question, experience and even our own religious texts indicate we shouldn’t expect much certainty or clarity on the matter – and certainly nothing remotely like Brother Juniper’s “scientific” approach.

Wilder sets up an interesting contrast between Brother Juniper’s faith – obsessed with certainty and proof – and Madre Maria del Pilar’s.  The Abbess is a woman born in the wrong time – which makes it impossible for her to operate with any kind of certainty about anything:

She was one of those persons who have allowed their lives to be gnawed away because they have fallen in love with an idea several centuries before its appointed appearance in the history of civilization.  She hurled herself against the obstinacy of her time in her desire to attach a little dignity to women.  At midnight when she had finished adding up the accounts of the House she would fall into insane vision of an age when women could be organized to protect women, women travelling, women as servants, women when they are old or ill, the women she had discovered in the mines of Potosi, or in the workrooms of the cloth-merchants, the girls she had collected out of doorways on rainy nights.  But always the next morning she had to face the fact that the women in Peru, even her nuns, went through life with two notions:  one, that all the misfortunes that might befall them were merely due to the fact that they were not sufficiently attractive to bind some man to their maintenance and, two, that all the misery in the world was worth his caress.  She had never known any country but the environs of Lima and she assumed that all its corruption was the normal state of mankind.  Looking back from our country we can see the whole folly of her hope.  Twenty such women would have failed to make any impression on that age.  Yet she continued diligently in her task.  She resembled the swallow in the fable who once every thousand years transferred a grain of wheat, in the hope of rearing a mountain to reach the moon.  Such persons are raised up in every age;  they obstinately insist on transporting their grains of wheat and they derive a certain exhilaration from the sneers of the bystanders.  “How queerly they dress!” we cry.  “How queerly they dress!”

The Abbess, of course, constantly struggles to get funding from the male church hierarchy, which is uninterested in her attempts at embryonic feminism.  She has handpicked Pepita, a girl from the orphanage, to carry on her work when she is gone.  As part of this training, the Abbess sends Pepita to be the Marquesa’s companion…which leads to Pepita dying on the bridge along with the Marquesa.  And with that, the Abbess must accept that despite all her labors, her project will die too.  Which leads directly to her leap of faith in the closing lines of the book…recalling Wilder’s own words about God’s caritas.

“Even now,” she thought, “almost no one remembers Esteban and Pepita, but myself.  Camila alone remembers her Uncle Pio and her son;  this woman, her mother.  But 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.”

Finally, I simply have to draw attention to all the references in this book to Tomas Luis de Victoria, the wonderful 16th-century polyphonist.  As this book is set in Spanish Peru in 1714, Victoria’s music wouldn’t have been all that old, and is considered the highest art from the Castilian homeland.  Obviously, I have to share.


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