A novel by Thornton Wilder
Penguin Classics £5.99
“On Friday noon, July the twentieth, 1714, the finest bridge in Peru broke, and precipitated five travellers into the gulf below.” Thus begins Thornton Niven Wilder’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel first published in 1927. The Bridge was on the high road between Lima and Cuzco. The Incas had woven it of osier more than a century before, and that it should break was unthinkable.
The accident was witnessed by Brother Juniper, a Franciscan missionary from Northern Italy who decides to examine the lives of those killed in the tragedy and find the meaning, thus making it a test case in an exploration he has long since wished to complete; the victims must have been either impious and therefore were punished, or were pious and taken early to heaven. “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.”
The friar’s line of questioning into the nature of the world and its creation leads to the great written record of his study being destroyed, and he himself condemned as a heretic and burned to death. He spent the last night in a prison cell trying to seek in his own life the pattern that eluded him in the examination of five others that died on the bridge. They were, The Marquesa de Montemayor and her servant Pepita, the orphaned twin Esteban, Uncle Pio and Don Jamie.
What emerges from his study of humanity is that lives are too complex to be fixed with the tag of ‘good’ or ‘bad’. There are so many shades of grey that brother Juniper is prevented from bringing his research to the conclusion he wishes, that lives and events could be seen simply in black and white. Despite the fact that his observations suggested a more complex reality, he remained convinced of his initial hypothesis.
Central to this fine piece of writing is the sense of being within theatre, theatre as metaphor for life, as William Shakespeare wrote in As you like It (Act II, Sc VII):
All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages.
“And for the rest?… “ as Camila the Perichole, the most celebrated actress of Peru whose son died on the bridge, asks. “Oh, I do not understand. It is just circumstance. I must be what I must.”
The novel set in the 17th century of Baroque world views with its rationalist philosophies, invites us to question how much we really know about another person or about ourselves. What is the purpose of our placement on earth? What of death, and what remains of us after we are gone? The Abbess Madre María del Pilar realises in old age that she has spent her life being too busy. It would have been enough to work, to work for a quality of attention and not for a result, to work for work itself and not for praise and self-agrandisement. Above all in her view there is love, and “all those impulses of love return to the love that made them. Even memory is not necessary for love.” Love is the only meaning, the vital bridge between the land of the living and a land of the dead.
While relating a compelling tale Wilder manages to offer a striking portrait of the main characters, and the period and place within which they lived. He makes use of two historical people, Micaela Villegas (1748—1819) the renowned Peruvian singer/actress who was known as La Perricholi, and Manuel de Amat y Juniet, Viceroy of Peru from 1761 to 1776.
The 2004 film version of The Bridge of San Luis Rey was based on the life of Micaela Villegas who also was the inspiration for Prosper Mérimée’s comic novella La Carrosse du Saint-Sacrement, Jean Renoir’s 1953 film Le Carrosse d’or, and two other film versions of The Bridge of Saint Louis Rey one made 1929 and the other starring Lynn Bari and Alla Nazimova in 1944. Wilder also acknowledged the influence of Mérimée’s on his work.
Thornton Wilder remains one the leading novelist’s of the Americas. His works include Heaven’s My Destination (1935), The Ides of March (1945). His two plays Our Town ((1938) and the Skin of Our Teeth (1942) were both awarded the Pulitzer Prize.