Tuesday 16 October 2012

The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder

I find that stories set in South America often have a similar tone and style.

Over the years I've read Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Nicholas Shakespeare as well as many historical accounts about the coming of the Spanish.
There is something about this continent and it's writing that both attracts and repels me.

The drama, the pathos and the tragedy is writ large. The clash of culture, religion, ideas and class that somehow melds together to create the chaotic, sprawling, magical world that is South America in literature.

I love these themes, but I often feel detached and unmoved by the writers of South American literature that I've read so far.

These writers seem to be inspired by the mystical, magical and otherworldly nature of South America. Here more than elsewhere are stories of gods and power and hubris. 
Perhaps it's the harsh environment - soaring mountains, deadly jungles, flooding rivers, killer animals and extremes in temperature that inspire these artists.
This is not a country for gentle family dramas to unfold at a leisurely pace!

Wilder didnt actually visit Peru úntil 1941, which makes it remarkable how well Wilder conveys the feel of Peru. 
The Bridge of San Luis Rey is a slim volume that discusses the big, fat, juicy themes of free will and the meaning of life!
There is a fatal disaster up front.
We know from the beginning that 5 people die for no good reason, with no purpose and unfairly. Brother Juniper, a witness, decides to research the five people killed to see he can resolve the question of whether or not "we live by accident and die by accident, or we live by plan and die by plan."
The book then becomes a conversation with the church and god and self about the value of an individuals life in the larger scheme of things. How does one live with chaos? How does one create a purpose in life? What is the value of a good life if the good and the bad die equally?

The book is littered with beautiful prose and images. My favourite was "There was something in Lima that was wrapped up in yards of violet satin from which protruded a great dropsical head and two fat pearly hands; and that was its archbishop."  

The Bridge of San Luis Rey was thought-provoking and beautifully constructed, but I felt alienated the whole time I was reading it. I never really cared for any of the characters or what happened to them. There was a lot of talk of passion but I felt cold.

Until the end.

****This is now my official spoiler alert.
I'm about to quote the final sentence of the book because I loved it so much.
It moved me so much I reread it several times. 
It summed up the book perfectly with a lovely piece of imagery.
If you'd like to discover Wilder's gem on your own, then stop reading here.

"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."

The Bridge of San Luis Rey was published in 1927 and won the Pulitzer for 1928.


  1. Anonymous1/11/12

    I believe (and could be very wrong on this) that one of the hallmarks of Latin and South American literature is its development of magical realism. Sometimes it works for me, sometimes it really doesn't. I'd really like to read this book sometime though.... -Sarah

  2. Yes. I wanted to say something similar about magical realism but I don't know enough about it :-) except that sometimes it works for me and sometimes it doesn't!!

    1. A quick wiki search reveals....

      Latin American exclusivity

      Criticism that Latin America is the birthplace and cornerstone of all things magic realist is quite common.

      Ángel Flores does not deny that magical realism is an international commodity but articulates that it has a Hispanic birthplace, writing that, "Magical realism is a continuation of the romantic realist tradition of Spanish language literature and its European counterparts."

      Flores is not alone on this front; there is argument between those who see magical realism as a Latin American invention and those who see it as the global product of a postmodern world.

      Irene Guenther concludes, "Conjecture aside, it is in Latin America that [magical realism] was primarily seized by literary criticism and was, through translation and literary appropriation, transformed."

      Magic realism has taken on an internationalization: dozens of non-Hispanic writers are categorized as such, and many believe that it truly is an international commodity.

  3. You already know I loved this book...the ending made it all worthwhile.


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