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I promised you in the last post that I would be back to talk about the The Bridge of San Louis Rey and guess what???!!!! Surprise!!! Surprise!! I am going to talk about The Bridge of San Louis Rey.

Now I know this book is one of the modern classics (I am still to completely understand that term!) and it won Thornton Wilder his first of the three Pulitzers and Yada yada yada!!  I am not a person who goes with Pulitzer and Nobel. I mean I fell in love with Orhan Pamuk, way back in my sophomore year when no one or at least a very limited population knew him outside Turkey! On the other hand, there is J.M. Coetzee and I know a lot of you out there swear by him, but I do not understand him at all and gave up on him after Disgrace! (I could not understand Lucy marrying her rapist!) Give me a good yarn with some creative language and I am a sucker for that work, though the world in general may have never heard of it! So, though this book was on my list, it was never a top priority, nor did I go out of my way to find and read it. Until, one fine morning while doing some online shopping for some exotic books (will tell you about them later!) I came across a discounted copy of the book and decided on whim to buy it! It was bought more like a task… a necessary chore that needed to be completed in the journey of reading through every type of fiction in print!

Then the inevitable happened….like all love stories, the thing that one ignores the most, one ends up falling in love (trust me! I speak from experience!), I fell in love with The Bridge of San Louis Rey.

Thorton Wilder was born to an US diplomat in 1897 and spent his early childhood in China. All his siblings were accomplished scholars and writers; in fact his elder brother was the Professor of Divinity at Harvard Divinity School. He began his career as a writer with the publication of The Cabala in 1927 and spent the next 40 years writing – his last work to be published was Theophilus North in 1973. Through his life he won three Pulitzer Prizes, the first one as mentioned in 1928 for The Bridge of San Louis Rey and two more for his plays – Our Town in 1938 and The Skin of Your Teeth in 1942.

The Bridge of San Louis Rey is set in 18th century Peru, where on a fateful day of July 20th 1714, the bridge spanning the San Luis Rey, built by Incas a century earlier, snaps and plunges to death 5 people. This tragedy is witnessed by Brother Juniper, a Franciscan monk, who then sets out to find more details about the lives of the 5 people and understand why things happen? Are some actions fated or does being good or innocent help in bringing on a definite life and its end? Or does the universe work according to a random cosmic plan? The book then explores the lives of the 5 characters –

  • Doña María, the Marquesa de Montemayor : The lonely Marquesa who spends all her efforts in trying to get closer to her daughter who had married an aristocrat across the oceans in Spain, to get away from her mother.
  • Pepita: An orphan girl raised at the Convent of Santa María Rosa de la Rosas and sent by the Abbess of the convent to act as a companion to the Marquesa as part of her training, albeit unknown to her as the heir to the Abbess in the management of the Convent.
  • Esteban: Another orphan raised again at Convent of Santa María Rosa de la Rosas, and who begins to work as a scribe in the theater along with his twin brother Manuel
  • Uncle Pio; The mentor, guide and protector of the actress Camila Perichole, who transforms a 12-year-old mimic called Micaela Villegas into the renowned Camila Perichole and remains faithful to her even when she becomes the mistress of the Viceroy.
  • Don Jaime: Camila Perichole’s son whom Uncle Pio takes with him to train the boy like he had once trained the mother.

The book ends with Dona Clara, daughter of Marquesa de Montemayor coming back to Lima and meeting the Abbess who takes her around the convent. Dona Clara is moved by the sights and sounds of the hospital and the sick and poor being cared for at the Convent. The novel ends with one of the most critical observations on mankind – There is a land of the living and a land of the dead and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning.

Written a simple style with some wonderful play of words, this book’s is an easy read in terms of a tale. It covers less than 120 pages. However vis-à-vis a parable or rather a philosophy, the book is unique in the sense, Wilder manages to convey a lot of moral and insightful ideas, without seeming didactic or pedagogic.

This is a must read, but do not read it in a rush, but absorb the language and the ideas as nuggets over a slow afternoon, where you have the night to think them through!

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