Top positive review
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on September 28, 2002
A brilliant book. Wilder richly deserved the Pulitzer that this book earned. Short, at 133 pages in this edition, it is uniformly excellent. Wilder's sharp wit and turn of phrase are unmatched. The book's theme is powerful and resolved in an unexpected and profound way. Brother Juniper, a thoughtful friar, witnesses the collapse of a rope bridge over a gorge in rural Peru in 1714 and the death of the five people walking along it. He views this event as an opportunity to prove the existence of god and, finally, to elevate theology to the rank of the hard sciences. Juniper instinctively believes that there must be a divine reason for those five to have been chosen for death. He senses god's powerful, latent hand in the bridge's collapse and commits himself to learning all there is to know about the victims in order to discern the plan and prove god's existence. Who were the victims? What were their lives like? Why did they die?
Juniper's conclusions are, of course, inconclusive. He never found the pattern, but remained convinced that it was there, just that he was too poor an intellect to see it. Such questions, naturally, were anathema to the church of the age and Juniper and his book were destroyed for heresy. Readers who focus on the same questions as Juniper are doomed to be just as frustrated. Wilder is far too insightful to let Juniper have the last word, for ultimately, it is not Juniper who stumbles upon the meaning of the five deaths, but the survivors -those who loved the victims- as well as the reader. What the five had in common was that they were human beings, with tender sides and flaws and significant unrequited loves. There is nothing remarkable here, we are all built that way. After their deaths, the Abbess whose orphanage was home to two of the victims realizes that the meaning lies in the lives themselves, in the love the victims shared with those near to them. That there is no immortality, not even memory or good works, so that what matters is the fleeting existence of goodness, and therein lies god's grace. Love is a powerful and immediate force, not a point for theological debate. "Many who have spent a lifetime in passion can tell us less of love than the child that lost a dog yesterday."
Wilder's prose is smooth and polished and yielding of aphorisms: the six attributes of the adventurer (a memory for names and faces, the gift of tongues, inexhaustible invention, secrecy, a talent for chatting with strangers, and a freedom from conscience); or an observation that "the public for which masterpieces are intended is not on this earth." Every line is adept, every page a wonder.
While Wilder wrote the book in 1927, it is perhaps a perfect inquiry into 17th century baroque worldviews and the rationalist philosophies they spawned. The baroque had reached Spain, if not Peru, by 1714. Its fascination with death and the brevity of life ("carpe diem" and countless reminders of the inevitabiity of death) resound her, as do its emphasis on vanity, and theater as a metaphor for life. Lima's theatre, its actresses and audiences, are central to the book. And it is only when the beautiful actress is struck by tragedies that she reaches her resolution in grace. Juniper himself embodies that strange blend of baroque scientific materialism and divine idealism of an age in which Descartes could prove the existence of god while Newton demonstrated god's machinery in motion.
Wilder's solution is much more satisfying than Descartes' or Juniper's. Wilder may have been baroque in his cynicism, but he was decidedly 20th century american in his hopefulness. "The Bridge of San Luis Rey" is a stunning book.