Posted by: gdevi | January 28, 2011

Book Review: The Bridge of San Luis Rey

Book Review: Thornton Wilder, The Bridge of San Luis Rey, New York: Washington Square Press, Inc., 1939, pp. 122.

I spent most of my Thursday with my eyes closed. Right after my last class I went to get my eyes tested–I can’t see anything these days and in class I keep misreading words–I turn the text around this way and that way, hold it close hold it far, peer at it for long intervals of time; it’s not you kids, I told the students, it’s me, I need a new prescription, you’re all a blur, I can’t see a thing.  My doctor was pleased; my eyes have generally become more weak and the lens power has increased for each eye by a whole unit! I have had long sight ever since I can remember and now I have bifocals.  In two more years, your eyes will need contacts, my doctor said, I won’t be able to increase your lens power anymore for glasses. But everything else was good; good health for my eyes. Thank god.  Anyway to commemorate my new state change, I decided to migrate to a new frame; I have had this wire frame for years now; I got these beautiful new frames; I can’t wait to get my new glasses in a week’s time! I almost felt like crying when he finally adjusted my lenses and I could see very very very clearly without straining my eyes at all for the first time in months–I really felt like crying. What a feeling! Life’s pleasures are few, and seeing well without straining your eyes is definitely one of them.  But the dilation of my eyes really did me in; I came out and the snow was so bright and everything was so bright and my pupils were so open and dilated that every ray of light went in and poked the soft insides of my poor poor eyes out! What pain! I got home and it was incredible, Daisy had eaten a whole 9×11 pan full of chocolate brownies that was sitting on the kitchen table. Poor K and D had to run to the Chemist and get a bottle of hydrogen peroxide; our vet said a quarter cup should induce vomiting and she will throw it all out of her system.  Look at her now, sleeping at my feet like a little lovebug! Daisy Daisy Daisy!  Anyway after the Daisy excitement I spent the rest of the evening with my eyes shut tight until supper time. My eyes feel much better now.

It must be another sign of getting older, like the bifocals, but given a choice between reading a new book and rereading an old book, I would readily reread an old book. My nightstand is stacked with all the new books that I got as gifts last year from friends and family (I have stopped buying books for myself unless absolutely warranted; what are libraries for?) that are yet to be read,  but I went out of the way last week to reread Thornton Wilder’s 1939 short novella The Bridge of San Luis Rey. I had read it–god, must be when I was 13 or 14 years old–thirty three years ago!–when I was home in India. Both of my parents were voracious readers and our house was filled with books and I read all the time.  I was like Sherman Alexie; I read everything in our house which went the gamut of the newspaper wrapping in which the fish and the vegetables came to my mother’s ancient and incredible book collection to my father’s collection of paperbacks and Southern Gothic novels–I remember reading Erskine Caldwell’s Tobacco Road when I was in sixth standard. [I had to read it in secrecy.] Even at that age I remember thinking how off-the-wall the book was that it has to be true; it prepared me forever to view life through the prism of a book. The Bridge of San Luis Rey was one such book. I did not know who Thornton Wilder was or anything about him, but that little book had captivated me with the fundamental premise it explored through its calm story-telling: either we live by accident and die by accident, or we live by plan and die by plan, the plan obviously referring to some sort of divine plan.  Nothing much happens in the book by way of plot. Brother Juniper, a Franciscan monk witnesses the collapsing of the ancient bridge of San Luis Rey in Lima, Peru on July 20, 1714 and five people plunging to their deaths from that bridge. Brother Juniper decides to find out why those specific five people died in that bridge collapse; why them, and not someone else? Why them on that bridge? It is a fantastic search. We hear of people dying all the time, and yet, we don’t stop to wonder why they died the way they did and why it was that they were the ones who died that way, and not someone else. In other words, it is a question not about death at all, but about life. Brother Juniper decides to investigate the lives of the five people who died on the bridge of San Luis Rey  in an attempt to understand if their deaths had anything to do with their lives or if it was totally random. Or to reinterrogate the old question: Does God play dice with the universe? Brother Juniper wants to prove a metaphysical point via empirical means; this intellectual contortion is at the heart of this fabulous novel:

“It seemed to Brother Juniper that it was high time for theology to take its place among the exact sciences and he had long intended putting it there. What he had lacked hitherto was a laboratory. Oh, there had never been any lack of specimens; any number of his charges had met calamity,–spiders had stung them; their lungs had been touched; their houses had burned down and things had happened to their children from which one averts the mind. But these occasions of human woe had never been quite fit for scientific examination. They had lacked what our good savants were later to call proper control. The accident had been dependent upon human error, for example, or had contained elements of probability. But this collapse of the bridge of San Luis Rey was a sheer Act of God. It afforded a perfect laboratory. Here at last one could surprise His intentions in a pure state. (6)

The novella is structured around a narrator’s preface that introduces Brother Juniper’s notebooks–the humongous tomes where he recorded the details of the lives of the five people who died when the bridge collapsed. The Marquesa de Montemayor, her servant Pepita, Esteban, Uncle Pio and the little boy Don Jaime — these are the five characters who die when the bridge collapses. Wilder is a restrained but ruthless vivisector of human minds with surgical precision. We learn that the Marquesa has an almost pathological need to be loved by her daughter who we are told ignores her completely. The Marquesa spends all her time composing letters to her daughter trying to be charming, witty, pleasant–she is obsequious in her avaricious need to be loved and admired by her daughter. In between writing letters to her daughter, the Marquesa drinks herself to a stupor; it takes months for letters to go back and forth between Peru and Spain:

“Everyone drank chicha in Peru and there was no particular disgrace in being found unconscious on a feast day. Dona Maria had begun to discover that her feverish monologues had a way of keeping her awake all night. Once she took a delicate fluted glassful of chicha on retiring. Oblivion was so sweet that presently she stole larger amounts and tried dissimulating their effects from Pepita; she hinted that she was not well, and represented herself as going into decline. At last she resigned all pretense. The boats that carried her letter to Spain did not leave oftener than a month. During the week that preceded the making of the packet she observed a strict regimen and cultivated the city assiduously for material. at last on the eve of the post she wrote the letter, making up the bundle towards dawn and leaving it for Pepita to deliver to the agent. Then as the sun rose she would shut herself up in her room with some flagons and drift through the next few weeks without the burden of consciousness. Finally she would emerge from her happiness and prepare to go into a state of “training” in preparation for the writing of another letter. “( 22)

Now we might ask, is this character flaw enough to fling you to your death from an ancient bridge? It appears that it is not just what you do that matters, but also everything that you do not do. The Marquesa for instance is completely inattentive to her young servant Pepita, the orphan she brings home to be her attendant. Pepita walks around serving the Marquesa without a single word of reproach in her dirty, torn clothes, which Wilder reminds us, the Marquesa could have easily fixed. But she doesn’t, because she is pining for love from her daughter. Finally when the Marquesa and Pepita go to the shrine of Santa Maria de Cluxambuqua in Cuzco–the bridge connects Lima and Cuzco–to make special prayers for her daughter’s pregnancy, Wilder shows us how self-interest corrupts prayers: “She had a strange sense of having antagonized God by too much prayer and so addressed him now obliquely: “After all it is in the hands of another. I no longer claim the least influence. What will be, will be.”  Her spiritual unraveling is complete when she discovers Pepita’s simple and loving letter to the Madre Maria del Pilar, the Abbess of the orphanage–it fills her with jealousy: “For a moment, she was filled with envy: she longed to command another’s soul as completely as this nun was able to do. Most of all she longed to be back in this simplicity of love, to throw off the burden of pride and vanity that hers had always carried” (36). The Marquesa does not know grace–thus she even mistakes Pepita’s love for the Abbess as the nun “commanding her soul.”  We have to think that God does play dice with the universe, because that night, just before she is flung to her death from the bridge as they cross it on their way back to Lima from Cuzco, she decides to change:

“She opened the door upon her balcony and looked at the great tiers of stars that glittered above the Andes. Throughout the hours of the night, though there had been few to hear it, the whole day had been loud with the singing of these constellations. Then she took a candle into the next room and looked at Pepita as she slept, and pushed back the damp hair from the girl’s face. “Let me live now,” she whispered, “Let me begin again.” (39)

Wilder’s method–commentary-less exposition of the contortions of the individual mind –is the same for the remaining casualties of the accident as well as the other characters in the novel.  Except for the little boy Jaime, Uncle Pio and Pepita–Jaime, son of the famous actress Perichole that Uncle Pio tries to rescue from the actress’s self-absorbed and vain life–Perichole who has “never realized love save love as passion . . . many who have spent a lifetime in it can tell us less of love than a child that lost a dog yesterday” (97)–even her religious conversion is a conscious performance–and has hard lessons to learn in life; Uncle Pio a wandering thespian who sees that Perichole has not learned her lesson in life; Pepita who brings out the Marquesa’s spiritual malaise; Esteban who destroys his brother’s life out of jealousy and feeling unwanted; Dona Clara, the Marquesa’s daughter who feels repelled by her mother’s incessant emotional gouging of her existence, the Abbes Madre Maria del Pilar who “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 . . . . and they derive a certain exhilaration from the sneers of the bystanders. “How queerly they dress! ” we cry. How queerly they dress!” (28)—Wilder shows us a tableau of characters who are essentially divided into two groups–those who love and those who do not. “It was a horrible aristocracy, apparently, for those who had no capacity to love (or rather for suffering in love) could not be said to be alive and certainly would not live again after their death. They were a kind of straw population, filling the world with their meaningless laughter and tears and chatter and disappearing still lovable and vain into thin air” (89).  It is in this sense-in its belief in the the presence and absence of Grace in certain human hearts–that this is a deeply religious book. The characters who do not have this god’s grace are those who use people to further their own interests. You can trick a lot of people; but you cannot trick what you cannot see or touch or know. God is that Black Hole; the Jokerman with the random dice. It is like that scene in Bergman’s The Seventh Seal where the Knight plays chess with Death; when you gamble with god, the house wins, always.

It is hard enough for a novelist to chart the meandering vagaries of our conscious actions, but to incisively explore and explicate the subtle corruptions of our unconscious as well requires great imagination. So do we live and die according to a plan? Does it matter that you are Sarah Palin and you are Robert Plant? It is instructive that in the novel’s denouement, Brother Juniper is burned at the stake by the Inquisition for heresy. Brother Juniper dies believing that his death is part of God’s plan, but also the Inquisition’s plan. God does not interfere with the Inquisition. If you know the plan, can you predict the future? Can you make the future the way you want it by living according to some plan? Of the five people who die on the bridge the Marquesa and Esteban have corrupted consciences but Pepita, Uncle Pio and the little boy Jaime are innocent of any kind of spiritual corruption. So why did they die such a horrific death? Did the others deserve it more than they did? It would be inaccurate of us to conclude so, except perhaps to note that the weight of corruption on that bridge on that particular day was greater and heavier than the weight of the spiritually pure. So it was the bridge that was altered and could not sustain what was on it on that specific day and that specific time. So God does appear to play dice; sometimes he throws his dice for us to cross bridges that are set to collapse because we do not know who our fellow travelers are, we do not know the capacity of the bridge, we do not really know much. This is as good a definition of “randomness” as any theory of Black Holes in particle Physics.  We do not know what we do not know. We only see through a glass darkly. We cannot go beyond where we have not been.  The Black Hole is out of sight.  Etcetera,  Etcetera, Etcetera, as the King told Anna in Anna and the King of Siam. There are so many aphorisms to choose from.

What a beautiful beautiful book; I am so glad I reread it again. However, I am going to believe that two years from now, I would need contacts; my glasses would be ineffective. K, D and I were wondering yesterday where we would like to be when we are dead–heaven or hell? Or as Dayani says –this is the school instructing her–“h -e- double hockey stick.” We were wondering who our fellow travelers would be in heaven: Sarah Palin for sure, Karl Rove, Michele Bachman, George Bush, Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney. Hell might have Mick Jagger, Robert Plant, Ralph Nader, Bill Clinton, Nancy Pelosi, Norman Finkelstein, Molly Ivins, Vanessa Redgrave. I vote for Hell.

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