Wednesday, 21 September 2011

Bridge of Sighs

I first read The Bridge of San Luis Rey, Thornton Wilder’s 1928 Pulitzer Prize-winning classic, when I was sixteen or thereabouts. What relevance is that; why does it matter what age I was? Let me defer the answer to that question until I get a little deeper. I’ve now reread it, in situ, so to speak, in Peru, where the action of this brilliant little novella is set. I reread it, occasionally pausing for reflection, looking out over the distant Andes.

It begins with a tragedy: at noon on Friday 20 July 1714 the old Inca bridge between Lima and Cuzco broke “and precipitated five travellers into the gulf below.” News of the disaster spread across Peru, emphasising the mutability of all things. For the Bridge of San Luis Rey, named after Louis IX, the king-saint of France, was believed to be among those things that would last forever, that its collapse was unthinkable.

One man witnessed the unthinkable – Brother Juniper, a Franciscan missionary from Italy. There are bigger question to be answered here, questions about God’s purpose, questions about destiny. Poised between the age of faith and the age of reason, the earnest friar asks one central question: why did this happen to those five people? He believes that theology can be set on the same basis as the exact sciences, that it is possible to read the mind of God;

If there is any plan in the universe at all, if there is any pattern in a human life, surely it could be discovered mysteriously latent in those lives so suddenly cut off. Either we live by accident and die by accident, or we live by plan and die by plan.

Ironically Juniper’s researches were eventually to lead to his own death as a heretic, hardly surprising when one considers that there is a strong tinge of Calvinist predestination in his intellectualism.

That’s the thing about The Bridge of Saint Luis Rey: not only is it a poignant story beautifully told with great economy of prose, with words of poetic intensity, but it’s also, on another level, a light polemic, a repost to the strict beliefs of the author’s own father;

…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 in the right way

The friar, looking for cosmic answers, only finds individual lives, people who are imperfectly perfect; people like Dona Maria, the Marquesa de Montemayor, and her servant, Pepita; Esteban, the earlier death of whose twin almost drives him to suicide; Uncle Pio and Jaime, the young son of Camila Perichole, Peru’s most famous actress.

Beyond the dead, whose lives are explored in compelling vignettes, three in the major key, the story touches on the life of Perichole herself and her relationship with all of the central characters, especially Uncle Pio, the man who discovered her in the first place and does all he can to nurture her talents; who loves her, teaches her, spurs her and serves her all at the same time. There is Madre Maria del Pilar, the Abbess of the Convent of Santa Maria Rosas de la Rosas, where Pepita, Esteban and his brother Manuel grew up. And there is Dona Clara, the estranged daughter of the Marquesa de Montemayor, for whom she is only able to express her love at a distance, in letters that are destined to become classics of Spanish literature. You see there are other bridges here, bridges that remain unbroken, bridges in the heart.

I’ve seen reviews where the claim is made, somewhat repetitively, that the central theme of the novella is the problem of why good things happen to bad people. But that seems to me to be missing the whole point. People who think like that haven’t really got beyond the bafflement of Father Juniper.

There can be no conclusions here; there are no conclusions beyond the truism that the mind of God is inscrutable, that nothing can be read into individual destinies. The central theme is not about the vagaries of fate or predestination, but love and the search for meaning in love. That’s the pattern; that’s the key, summed up in the final words of, words heart-gripping depth and beauty, thoughts given to Madre Maria;

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 then 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.

Yes, I read this when I was sixteen. Here I am, almost ten years later, a little more polished, perhaps, a little sharper in my understanding of some of the core philosophical and theological issues, but really not a step beyond that final simple truth which moved me to tears.

In an Amazon review – generally a good one – the writer, responding to the incomprehension of an earlier contributor, said that understanding requires maturity, that overall this is a book better read when one is 60 rather than 16. Prior to this he wrote that the author’s conclusion was ‘unsatisfactory’.

If Wilder had written a book three times as long, if he had taken the path of Friar Juniper, if he had elaborated on questions of causality and chance, of will and destiny, he would have moved further from the truth, not closer. I’m glad I read The Bridge of San Luis Rey when I was sixteen and not sixty.


  1. I have the DVD, I guess shit happens?

  2. There is a large object visable for two nights now in the eastern horizon. Our local news say it is a large UARS satelite the size of four city buses that is comming down to earth by thursday US central time? I can see it very well with 10x binoculars and it is a cluster of a large bright object and several smaller objects so soon we will see what this is.

  3. Shit happens. (Life is so much simpler for an atheist.) More effort spent on bridge maintenance and less on prayer would improve life immeasurably in Latin America.

    I wonder what sort of novel a pre-Pizarro Inca might have made of the scenario, or a Hindu, or a Confucian?

    Coincidentally, the mass murderers of Mexico seem to like to deposit the remains of their handiwork near or on bridges. Do you think there is some symbolism behind this - or is the choice more pragmatic, such as proximity to escape routes?

  4. The bright object to the east is most likely the planet jupiter and its moons but there is still the falling satelite?

  5. I've never read THE BRIDGE OF SAN LUIS REY, but now I will--thanks for the tip. One of my favourite Latin American novels is still Grahame Greene's THE POWER AND THE GLORY, which I, too, first read at 16. Upon re-reading it years later found it still moving, but not as overwhelming as I did at 16. Nevertheless, it's a similarly intense novel about a priest tormented by a guilty conscience for his own sins--but he is the only priest left alive in the district who can still perform sacraments for the people he meets as he flees the Mexican army hunting him down to execute him.

    I see from the fact that you're back to reflecting on books that, although still presumably in Peru, you've returned to your comfort zone of the intellect--and yet still easily moved to emotion. A presumably unfamiliar state to which you confessed in your previous post about Macchu Picchu, inter alia. That was an interesting post, as you seemed to portray an authentic encounter with sunyata, the truth that emptiness is form, form is emptiness. Your emotion and authentic awareness of a palpable reality beyond thought and words was a fine moment to read about . . .

    Confucius was of the opinion that one should not begin to study the I Ching until the age of 70 . . . Reading your two most recent posts--as you oscillate between perceiving reality more directly with your heart-mind and then once again processing reality through your formidable intellect--makes me wonder whether, if we knew how to properly experience consciousness, it would be possible for us to defer reading all books until, say, the age of 35 - 40? Sounds hellish, I know, but it might prevent the hyper-trophy of our intellects and the Cartesian blight that we Westerners all endure as a consequence, and allow us to engage with Being until we are no longer strangers to it, only then to finally read books when what we learn will take us deeper into Being . . .

    Good call, by the way, on Peruvian cuisine--the finest in Latin America.

  6. "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 then forgotten"

    I "do" family history. I have come to realise that people fade away in a sort of mist. You know a lot about your parents and quite a bit about theirs. But probably have no idea about your great grandparents. They have faded into the mist. As will we all - unless of course you are famous - like you Anastasia. Welcome back.

  7. Anthony, this is one of my favourite passages from the Bible:

    "I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all."

    Even cosmic events are uncertain. :-)

  8. Calvin, actually there could be. I have something flitting in the back of my mind about certain people being interred by bridges in the Middle Ages. I shall have to look into this to see if I can come up with anything further.

  9. Chris, thank you very much. Now here's a coincidence - I read a lot of Graham Greene, including The Power and the Glory, when I was sixteen also! I agree; it's a fine book. I loved Greene, loved reading about some of the moral dilemmas he explored through his Catholic faith.

    I like the way you put things. I did feel a sense of spiritual numbness, if that's the right expression, looking on that marvel.

  10. Michael, thanks. You are very sweet. :-)

  11. The Romans made a ritual of sacrificing people under the piers of bridges so that there would be a guardian spirit to protect the crossing.

  12. Ah, yes; more food for thought. :-)

  13. Anthony and Anastasia, here is a quote from a commentary to the I Ching to add to that great quote from Ecclesiastes: “Suprahuman intelligence has from the beginning made use of three mediums of expression—men, animals, and plants, in each of which life pulses with a different rhythm. Chance came to be utilized as the fourth medium; the very absence of an immediate meaning in chance permitted a deeper meaning to come to expression in it.”

    Eighth Wing Pages 262 – 263

  14. I did most of my "serious" reading when I was young. To me, books, literature, are a launching pad into life, into the unknown, and not a place to land. Better to read when young, get your head and heart filled with dreams and wild ideas, and then go out and live them.

  15. Marty, yes a final example of the gentle wisdom that I have come to expect of you. :-)