Tuesday, October 27, 2009
Pulitzer Project: The Bridge of San Luis Rey
The premise of the book struck me as rather odd before I began reading. Five people are crossing an old Inca-built bridge in the Spanish colony of Peru, the bridge fails, and they fall to their death. A monk, Brother Juniper, decides to explore their lives. He's convinced there must be a reason, that there should be a way to calculate scientifically why God decides some people live while others die. He wants to work out a mathematical formula that will both explain God's will and prove God's existence. He refuses to believe it was simply bad luck, chance, random coincidence that put those five people on the bridge when it broke.
The narrator, the omniscient author's voice, then notes that although the monk invested tremendous amounts of time, accumulated hundreds of pages of notes, and eventually wrote an enormous book describing the victims' lives, he didn't get it right. There were things about all five that were known only to themselves, and, of course, to the omniscient author telling us their stories.
Wilder naturally invests more pages of narration for some characters than others. The eccentric elderly female aristocrat has a lot more back story to explore than the adolescent orphan girl who had been raised in a convent, for example. In the end, though, they all walk out on to the bridge and die. What they have in common is something that can't be reduced to a rational calculus -- their humanity, and the love and memories of those who survive them. We may never truly know what another person is thinking or believing, but we can all love.
The book does have some structural flaws. The chronology (continuity?) seems off in places, but that's a minor quibble. Overall, this is a lovely book: beautifully written with layers of meaning and with absolutely no wasted words.
The Bridge of San Luis Rey won the Pulitzer in 1928. Next up? Scarlet Sister Mary by Julia Peterkin, a book and an author I'd never heard of until I began reading the prize winners. I have a sinking, vaguely apprehensive feeling that it's not going to be nearly as good as Wilder's work.