Sunday, February 12, 2017

The Bridge of San Luis Rey (1927)

It's possible I was confused by the setting of this short novel by Thornton Wilder, but I think it fits surprisingly well with strains of Latin American literature—with Gabrial Marcia Marquez, Mario Vargas Llosa, and Roberto Bolano, with Bernal Diaz's Conquest of New Spain, perhaps most of all with Jorge Luis Borges. It surprised me that it came from the author of the play Our Town. It's set in Spanish colonial Peru, in the early 18th century. A wooden footbridge over a canyon-like abyss in the highlands of the Andes gives way, and five people who happened to be crossing it drop to their deaths. A missionary priest, Brother Juniper, takes it upon himself to investigate the deaths, wanting to uncover the reason God took them so seemingly randomly. At the center of this narrative is the image of the five plunging to their deaths—it recurs again and again, at the end of each section, the inevitable conclusion (and the only clear one) of these investigations. Swirling around that image are the complicated lives of the dead, rendered all in moral shades of gray. One woman never wanted to marry. Now she feuds with her daughter whose marriage has taken her to Spain, and writes a series of beautiful letters. Another is a twin whose brother recently died. Their relationship is fierce, tortured, confusing. Another is a patron of the arts in the colonial outpost. All have sinned. All have redeemed themselves. "He thought he saw in the same accident the wicked visited by destruction and the good called early to Heaven." That's how Brother Juniper looks at it, and fair enough, at least until you get down to cases. Because which is which—in this story as in the world? That's the wonderful (and sardonic) ambiguity in which this novel dwells. It's short but remarkably dense, as it lays out the frontiers it knows of entire lives, with complications of threads of connections reaching in and around and through them all. Among other things, it's apparent we can only know so much about these people. Additional detail would not help much, you suspect, because it doesn't help much here, except in floating patches. There's a consistency to all these lives we come to recognize, but I'm not sure that's the same as understanding them. In fact, the image at the center of this novel, the five falling into the abyss, is almost perfectly apt for the mystery that suffuses this. I'm not trying to make a joke when I say I'm not sure how Thornton Wilder pulls this off. It's powerful, mysterious, and singular.

In case it's not at the library.

1 comment:

  1. It leaves an indelible image of the European in a remote outpost of colonial America. Isolated, forbidding, huge. Nice write-up.