The Resolution Project Book Seventeen: The Bridge of San Luis Rey (1927)

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books / the resolution project

The Resolution Project: For my New Year’s resolution this year (that being 2011), I decided to try and read all one hundred of the novels picked by Time Magazine as the best since their inception in 1923 to the list’s publication in 2005. I exempted myself from reading ones I’ve already read, leaving some eighty-six or so to read before the end of this year. Some spoilers may lie ahead, so be warned.

“He divided the inhabitants of this world into two groups, into those who had loved and those who had not. It was a horrible aristocracy, apparently, for those who had no capacity for love (or rather for suffering in love) could not be said to be alive and certainly would not live again after their death.” (p.83)

The Bridge of San Luis Rey cover

What a fantastic book, you can really see why it won Wilder the Pulitzer Prize in 1928. It actually took me far more time to parse my thoughts about it afterwards than it did to actually read the book itself, for it packs quite a wallop. It is 1714 in the Spanish colony of Peru when Brother Juniper, a Franciscan monk living amongst the native people in an attempt to convert them to Catholicism, witnesses the collapse of the San Luis Rey bridge, and the deaths of five people in the midst of crossing it. Eager to prove to his flock the ideas of Divine Providence and the plan God has for everyone on Earth, Juniper sets out to uncover the histories of all five of the bridge’s victims to find out why they had been chosen to die this day. Juniper’s findings are relayed to the reader through four short sections detailing the lives and loves of the five unfortunate souls who fell off the bridge, and they present a far more nuanced version than would really suit his purpose.

Maybe it was the South American locale the book takes place in, but the writer that Wilder most reminded me of here was Jorge Luis Borges. To me, both men share a humanist approach to their characters, as well as a reverence for texts that exist within the world of the book; with Juniper’s assessment of each person’s life forming the main part of the narrative, there are also notes on the Marquesa de Montemayor’s letters to her daughter in Spain, and how they have been studied intensely over the years (the Marquesa is the first of the victims claimed by the bridge to be examined). I love that “intra”-textuality feel, it’s something that has been brought up numerous times on the list, and will doubtlessly be done again.

The quote that preceded this article comes from the last of the people profiled, Uncle Pio, a sort of svengali-figure for the Perichole, a famous actress and singer who really lived at the time the book takes place. I think it is a good way of qualifying Wilder’s outlook on humanity as opposed to Juniper’s insistence on the existence of a divine plan. Rather than the sinners and saints, the preterite and the elect, Wilder feels that the life spent in interaction with other people is the one worth celebrating, the ones who have loved and been loved in return, and have felt heartache. They are the ones who have truly lived. Another book that The Bridge of San Luis Rey put me in mind of was Orson Scott Card’s Speaker for the Dead, which also deals with how best to examine the entirety of someone’s life. In both books, the main character acts almost like a detective, bringing together all the strands of a dead man’s life in order to paint a picture that is not completely flattering, but humanist, none the less.

Here’s what Richard Lacayo had to say about the book: http://www.time.com/time/specials/packages/article/0,28804,1951793_1951936_1952234,00.html

Just a marvelous book overall.

Total pages read since January 1st: 4823 pp

Next up on the Resolution Project: Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange (1963)

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The Author

Matt Bowes is a self-proclaimed cultural commentator/arbiter of good taste from Edmonton, Alberta. He enjoys movies and books, and writes about them sometimes at thisnerdinglife.com.

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