The Bridge of San Luis Rey, by Thornton Wilder. Christmas, and New Year’s.

Hello to all my new followers, and welcome back to my old ones if you’ve ventured onto my new site!

Now, because of all the shuffling I’ve had to do (and the arguably vast gap between this and my past proper book post) I am very much aware that both Christmas and New Year’s have passed us by, as well as all of January. As you can probably imagine, it was a sight for sore eyes to receive another book for Christmas, specifically Tara Moss’ Fetish which from what I can discern is a murder mystery novel set in Melbourne Australia. I plan on getting into this as soon as I’ve cleared out a few other novels, which have been lurking in my bookcase for over three years and are begging to be cracked open by me. This is also because I’m very quickly running out of usable space in my bookcase, and right now buying another bookcase is out of the question.

Last month I ventured into the halls of the Lifeline Bookfest and also managed to pick up a number of other titles which had been missing from my collections. These were:

  • 2010: Odyssey Two by Arthur C Clarke
  • 2031: Odyssey Three by Arthur C Clarke
  • 3001: The Final Odyssey by Arthur C Clarke
  • Goethe’s Faust
  • Homer’s The Odyssey
  • Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan (this is the book discussed in Little Women, which will follow this blog entry)
  • Notre Dame of Paris by Victor Hugo
  • Quest for the Future by A.E. Van Vogt
  • David Coperfield by Charles Dickens
  • Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenter and Seymour, an Introduction by J.D. Salinger

I’ve yet to start on any of these, but I’m looking quite forward to them.

For Christmas I was also the lucky recipient of a record player, and being a musician and audiophile this was one of the best presents I could possibly get. I managed to pick up a few records at the Bookfest, which are being played to death whenever I get the chance.

Now, onto today’s blog entry!

The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder did, I’ll be honest, surprise me. I’ve never read any Thornton Wilder before, so to read his first Pullitzer Prize-winning novel, second novel of all his works, surely has to be as good an introduction as any.

The novel itself deals with the story of five residents of Peru, who all meet a terrible end by plunging to their deaths when the bridge they are travelling on breaks. It’s told from the point of view of a priest who is determined to find out why those five people in particular fell victim to the bridge, and the answer he comes up with is quite unexpected. He believes that each of the characters must in some way be important to God, or perhaps have some vital purpose in the communities in which they live. He finds that, indeed, these five people were integral parts of their communities and that the loss was felt by everyone, however there is a more potent moral to this story and that’s love.

San Luis Rey’s exploration of themes of love is unique in that it contrasts the themes of religious love against interpersonal and self love, and does not raise one over the other in terms of importance. For the time period that this was set in (1714), this is quite a remarkable thing to conceptualise. Typical notions of religious piety and obeisance to the church often came before anything else, and although San Luis Rey was written 200 years or so after the time in which the book is set this is still quite a potent issue to raise, as it demonstrates that the mindset of everyone in the 1700s wasn’t as unanimous as it may seem in the history books. There are five characters in the book: Dona Maria, Marquesa de Montemayor; Pepita (the Marquesa’s maid); Esteban, whose twin brother has recently died and he is now suffering depression as a result; Uncle Pio, a collector of antiques and an adventurer who would rather not be tied down; and Jaime, the son of Camila Perichole who is the most famous actress in all of Peru. Each of these characters, it is found, have contributed something vast to the small community in which they live and all are interconnected in strange and unexpected ways, and even demonstrate the ideas of love in individual ways.

Dona Maria demonstrates love firstly to her daughter, in spite of her daughter not returning it. This is the unrequited motherly love that sorely goes unnoticed as Dona Maria slowly descends into madness from being alone. Abandoned by her daughter as the result of continued emotional disputes, she resides alone in her estate. On the recommendations of the local abbess, Dona Maria hires her own maid, Pepita, who henceforth takes care of her needs.

In Pepita’s interactions with Dona Maria, it eventually becomes evident that there is another far less binding love here: love of service. Pepita feels lonely, but she also feels like she wants to take care of Dona Maria and so she stays to help the Marquesa. She does also however have interactions with other colleagues, namely when she goes to see the Abbess who is entertaining Esteban.

Esteban’s love is purely for his brother. His lust for life and romantic love expired with the death of his brother and so he feels as if he will never again be at peace unless he is with his brother. He tries to invest in friendships, but finds it is too much to bear alone and so eventually commits suicide. He also, at one point, fell in love with Camila Perichole who sought him out as a copyist and messenger.

Camila Perichole’s role in the demonstrations of love is mostly about love of self. She embodies the very idea that loving only yourself can do much damage to your soul and you as a person. She meets Esteban during this phase of her life, and he is consumed by his love for her. She does not reiprocate it, and it is not until she meets Uncle Pio that she is taught that loving oneself can be harmful. She dedicates her life to her art, and puts her love into it.

Uncle Pio meanwhile, despite his interests in not being tied down does find himself tied to the Perichole for some time as her mentor, and loves her as his student. He gives her the help and support that she needs to make her art better, and in turn learn to love and be loved on a greater scale. The Perichole, however, lets all of this go to her head and she eventually becomes a bitter, reclusive lady with far too much money. She loses this money through unfortunate circumstances, and is left with her child, Jaime.

Jaime’s character is interesting. He also displays self-love, but his self-love is a foil to that of his mother’s. Where the Perichole cannot sacrifice her poisonous self-love for the sake of her son, her son is motivated by his own self-love (the self-love of protection, the drive to remain safe and move on to greener pastures) to leave her and do what is best for him.

At the end of the day, the tragedy of the bridge collapse only adds to this tale of loves and shows us that love, like the bridge, can collapse at a moment’s notice no matter what form it’s in and how much effort we have put into it. Old love, especially, like an old bridge, can have so much pressure put on it by the weights and worries of others that it can also collapse, and lead to a bitter ending for all involved. Including those who try to categorise and understand it: as we see with the friar who saw the bridge collapse, trying to understand any kind of love and quantify it is a matter that can leave one burning inside with want of understanding, and not ever receive it. Exactly like the friar and his works, both burnt at the stake, and damned to the eternal fires of hell.

On the flip side of the eternal fires, you also have the surviving pages of manuscript. These constitute what a person has when he or she has been burnt once by love. They are the clues, the little lessons that we can take away with us for later on so we don’t forget, and so we can improve on our past.

And like the bridge, though the old one broke, a new one that is much stronger can be built on new foundations and last the ages where the old did not.

The Bridge of San Luis Rey is, in my opinion, a metaphor for love in all its forms. It tells its readers of the different types of love, and how they can each be used for good or for ill will, and how even when love and life seem hopeless they can both be created and revelled in anew, with stronger bases for the lessons learnt. I would definitely recommend this book, not just because it has a Pullitzer Prize to its name, but because it has something to tell its readers and that’s something that books should do. They should teach us things.

Anyway, that’s it from me until my next blog post.

Never stop reading!



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