Tuesday, February 24, 2009

The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder

It took Leo Tolstoy more than 1,000 pages to give an imaginary tapestry to the same question it takes Thornton Wilder barely 100 pages to quickly sketch: How much control do human beings have over their own lives, and how do those lives touch one another?

Granted, “War and Peace” is epic storytelling, and perhaps the greatest novel ever written. But whereas Tolstoy’s magnum opus tries to supply an answer, “The Bridge of San Luis Rey” merely poses the question in such a way that two different readers can come away with vastly different ideas about what the author intends, and what the answer may be.

Five people are killed on a July day in 1714 while crossing an Inca bridge in Peru when it suddenly collapses. The event is spectacular enough to be called an act of God, and one of its witnesses is a man of God, the monk Brother Juniper. He begins an investigation into the lives of the five victims, believing he can scientifically pour over the events of each life and determine whether there is a divine plan at work in their deaths, or whether it was merely an accident, as some say existence itself is. Were these people innocent victims of a random accident, children called home by God, or were they being punished for the wrongs of a lifetime? The imagery is both obvious and ingenious - a bridge spanning a great abyss, with lives looking out into the expanse and hoping to make it to the other side intact.

As Wilder himself explained, “Strict Puritans imagine God all too easily as a petty schoolmaster who minutely weights guilt against merit, and they overlook God’s Caritas’ which is more all-encompassing and powerful. God’s love has to transcend his just retribution.”

Notice that the entire exercise, at least from the author’s point of view, presupposes the existence of God. Indeed, Christianity hangs over the events of the novel in both its cultural presence and the absence of it, felt in the individual lives. There is the Marquesa de Montemayor, a manipulative woman who covets the lost love of her daughter and only wants to begin her life again with a servant girl to watch over; Estaban, a suicidal man still mourning the loss of his twin brother; and Uncle Pio, a wandering cad who perishes along with the young son of his theatrical protégé, a boy he hopes to educate.

The victims inevitably shared connections with each other through characters both inside and outside the church. Almost all of them, as is said of Pio’s young actress, thought they “were going to be happy forever.” But the individual weight of their lives puts them in motion, inevitably toward the doomed bridge. And the misfortune isn’t over after the bridge collapses. The survivors must cope with the missing lives in their worlds, and even Brother Juniper’s investigations into their lives leads to both he and his book being burned by the Inquisition.

Throughout the story, one of the recurring motifs is that of the stars - impassive witnesses to the follies of mankind. One can look at the sky and see either the hand of God or the insignificance of mankind. And some see both, though those who do not believe look on the heavens and long for an affirmation of some reason behind the seemingly random. Another image reiterated is that of the ungrateful child who shuns a parental figure to exert some measure of control over his or her life, leaving the parent (or surrogate) to grieve like the shepherd for a lost sheep.

Wilder said many years later that people of faith found the book to be an affirmation, while those without it remarked at the book’s unblinking despair. That is a testament to the book's objective power, written in an almost King Jamesian style yet lacking a self-important or overly wise tone. Wilder said he considered himself part of the second group of readers who found despair in the book, but that sometimes he felt closer to the first. It’s interesting that one of his inspirations for the story came from the Gospels in Luke 13:

“There were some present at that very time who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. And he answered them, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish."

This is not usually the stuff of Sunday School class, with Jesus breathing fire at the punishment awaiting those who sin. We prefer the open handed Jesus, welcoming, heart full of love. One of the book’s obvious messages is that people die, and we attach meanings to their passing that may or may not be true, but help us, the survivors, to cope. Jesus’ words remind us that only God’s meaning, inscrutable as it may be, should be sought for one's life, since it is the only meaning worth considering. Skeptics may be moved to say, “Tell that to Brother Juniper.” His message from the scaffold would doubtless be, “Maybe you’re better off not seeking a meaning at all.”

And maybe that is more of a consolation, that answers to life’s agonizing questions are better sought elsewhere than in looking for our fathers in the dust. The book’s closing offers both questions and consolation, so much so that Tony Blair quoted it when remembering the victims of the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks:

“But soon we shall die and all memory of those five will have left the earth, and we ourselves shall be loved for awhile and forgotten. But the love will have been enough…There is a land of the living and a land of the dead and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning.”

Set Your Fields on Fire

The award-winning novel by William Thornton
Available now

Some of the coverage of "Set Your Fields on Fire"

 You can order "Set Your Fields on Fire"for $14.99 through Amazon here.
It's also available on Kindle at $3.99 through Amazon here.
Read an interview I did with AL.com on the book here.   
Here's my appearance on the Charisma Network's CPOP Podcast. 
Here's an interview I did with The Anniston Star on the book. 
Shattered Magazine wrote a story about the book here. 
The Alabama Baptist wrote about the book here.
This piece appeared in the Marietta (Ga.) Daily Journal.
Here's the write-up from The Birmingham Times.
Read a story for Village Living here.
This story appeared in The Trussville Tribune and this video.
Here's my appearance on East Alabama Today.
Story and video from WBRC Fox6 here. 
Here's the write-up in The Gadsden Times on the book.
Read a piece I wrote for WestBow Press about writing the book here.
A piece about some inspiring works for me.
This is another interview with the fleegan book blog here.

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