Thornton Wilder’s second novel, published in 1927, and winner of the Pulitzer Prize.
5 out of 5 stars.
Five people die in a Peruvian bridge collapse. Brother Juniper, a witness to the event, believes the existence of God can be proved by examining what brought each of the five to the bridge at the fateful moment. Juniper uses his findings to write a book. This is not that book.
This post is going to be a love-fest. I was taken in by The Bridge of San Luis Rey, beginning to end. I worried that the writing would be dated, stilted, and self-important but (closing in on its 90th anniversary) this book reads as incredibly modern, with heart and humor and universal understanding. Wilder creates an overlapping, intertwined, incredibly dense world in under 150 pages.
Part I: Perhaps an Accident
 Opening lines and Wilder’s already got me:
On Friday noon, July the twentieth, 1714, the finest bridge in all Peru broke and precipitated five travelers into the gulf below.
It had been woven of osier by the Incas.
noun – 1. a small Eurasian willow that grows mostly in wet habitats and is a major source of the long flexible shoots (withies) used in basketwork.
2. any of several North American dogwoods.
The bridge seemed to be among the things that last forever; it was unthinkable that it should break. The moment a Peruvian heard of the accident he signed himself and made a mental calculation as to how recently he had crossed by it and how soon he had intended crossing by it again.
Perhaps it was the memory that brushed him for a moment of the poem that bade him raise his eyes to the helpful hills.
Psalm 121 “A Song of Ascents” begins:
I lift up my eyes to the hills.
From whence does my help come?
Either we live by accident and die by accident, or we live by plan and die by plan.
 The narrator’s voice, while unobtrusive, adds a wonderful quality to the book. He speaks from a modern perspective on the historical events described (and, again, this book does not show its age at all):
You and I can see that coming from anyone but Brother Juniper this plan would be the flower of a perfect skepticism.
Everyone knew that he was working on some sort of memorial of the accident and everyone was very helpful and misleading.
And I, who claim to know so much more, isn’t it possible that even I have missed the very spring within the spring?
Some say that we shall never know and that to the gods we are like the flies that the boys kill on a summer day, and some say, on the contrary, that the very sparrows do not lose a feather that has not been brushed away by the finger of God.
This is quoted in David Mitchell’s Ghostwritten (Post 4, note ), which was the reason I tracked down The Bridge of San Luis Rey in the first place. (Thank you, Ghostwritten, something good has come from you.)
Part II: The Marquesa de Montemayor
She lived alone and she thought alone.
Among her proteges was the cartographer De Blasiis (…); another was the scientist Azuarius.
Both invented by Wilder.
The knowledge that she would never be loved in return acted upon her ideas as a tide acts upon cliffs. Her religious beliefs went first.
She secretly refused to believe that anyone (herself excepted) loved anyone.
These were the sons and daughters of Adam from Cathay to Peru.
Cathay is the Anglicized version of Catai and an alternative name for China in English.
She loved her daughter not for her daughter’s sake, but for her own.
“Do you remember that in the sacristy of San Martin there is a portrait by Velazquez of the Viceroy who founded the monastery and of his wife and brat? (…) I must pass the evening in a Titian.”
Diego Velazquez (1599 – 1660) was a Spanish painter, the leading artist in the court of King Philip IV, and one of the most important painters of the Spanish Golden Age. He painted many portraits of the royal family.
Tiziano Vecilli (~1488 – 1576), known in English as Titian was an Italian painter, the most important member of the 16th-century Venetian school.
“All three are badly hurt, but will be thinking of other things within a year.”
The Perichole was playing Dona Leonor in Moreto’s Trampa Adelante.
Agustin Moreto y Cavana (1618 – 1669) was a Spanish Catholic priest, dramatist and playwright.
I can’t find anything about Trampa Adelanta outside of Spanish, though Leonor is the top-billed character. Trampa Adelante translates to “cheat on” in English. It appears to be a comedy.
Everyone drank chicha in Peru and there was no particular disgrace in being found unconscious on a feast day.
A fermented or non-fermented beverage usually derived from maize.
When she was drunk she wore the grandeur of Hecuba.
A queen in Greek mythology, the wife of King Priam of Troy during the Trojan War, with whom she had 19 children. These children included several major characters of Homer’s Iliad, including Hector, Paris and Cassandra.
“I felt, my daughter, as though I were – what says the poet? – surprising through a cloud the conversation of the angels. Your voice kept finding new wonders in our Moreto.” When you said:
‘Don Juan, si mi amor estimas,
Y la fe segura es necia,
Enojarte mis temores
Es no querame discrete.
I can’t track down what poem surprising through a cloud the conversation of the angels is referring to.
For the following translation, I used this very helpful page which looks at the use of Spanish in The Bridge of San Luis Rey.
Don Juan, if my love you cherish,
And strong faith is foolish,
My fears anger you,
Do you want me to be discreet?
Are you sure?
The lines are from the play Trampa Adelante (lines 245-249 here). See note .
Even the wisest people in the world are not perfectly wise.
The women she had discovered in the mines of Potosi.
Potosi is a department (subdivision) of Bolivia, as well as the name of the city and capital of the department. The department is mostly a barren, mountainous region with one large plateau to the west, where the largest salt flat in the world is located. Potosi was the richest province in the Spanish empire and provided a great percentage of the silver that was shipped to Europe. It is also the location of the San Cristobal silver, zinc and lead mines.
The Archbishop of Lima (…) hated her with what he called a Vatinian hate.
adjective – of hatred; extremely strong, bitter, intense. From Latin name Vatinius, reportedly the name of a Roman who was universally hated.
What she had lost of religion as faith she had replaced with religion as magic.
“I could endure flowers if only they had no perfume.”
“I shall not go to Grignan in Provence as I expected this Fall.”
Grignan is a commune in the Drome department in the Auvergne-Rhone-Alpes region in southeastern France. It has a magnificent Renaissance castle and is mentioned in the letters that Madame de Sevigne wrote to her daughter, Madame de Grignan, in the 17th century.
(Some of the elements of Sevigne and Grignan are very close to BoSLR’s Dona Maria and Clara.)
Provence is a geographical region and historical province of southeastern France, which extends from the left bank of the lower Rhone River to the west to the Italian border to the east.
She made the pilgrimage to the shrine of Santa Maria de Cluxambuqua.
An invention of Wilder’s.
She had talked to Pepita as to an equal. Such speech is troubling and wonderful to an intelligent child.
She had unthinkingly turned upon Pepita the full blaze of her personality, as Jupiter had turned his upon Semele.
Semele, in Greek mythology, was the daughter of the Boeotian hero Cadmus and Harmonia. She was the mortal mother of Dionysus by Zeus in one of his many origin myths. In one story, Dionysus (called Liber) is the son of Jupiter, who gave his heart in a drink to Semele, which impregnated her.
She had a strange sense of having antagonized God by too much prayer and so addressed Him obliquely.
Throughout the hours of the night, through there had been few to hear it, the whole sky had been loud with the singing of these constellations.
Part III: Esteban
The names were not as useful to [the twins] as our names are to most of us, for no one ever succeeded in telling the boys apart.
Limean gossips, noticing as the boys grew older how straight they held themselves and how silent and somber they were, declared them to be Castilian.
Castile is a Spanish historical region of vague borders, which is the result of a gradual merge of the Kingdom of Castile with its neighbors to become the Crown of Castile and later the Kingdom of Spain when united with the Crown of Aragon and the Kingdom of Navarre. The Castilian language, now usually known as “Spanish”, gradually became the main language of Spain.
In the late afternoon she would call them into her office (…) and tell them stories about the Cid and Judas Maccabeus and the thirty-six misfortunes of Harlequin.
Rodrigo Diaz de Vivar (~1040 – 1099), better known as El Cid, was a Castilian nobleman and military leader in medieval Spain. The Moors called him El Cid, which meant the Lord, and the Christians, El Campeador, which stood for Outstanding Warrior. After his death, he became Castile’s celebrated national hero and the protagonist of the most significant medieval Spanish epic poem, El Cantar de Mio Cid.
Judas Maccabee (or Judas Maccabeus) was a Jewish priest and a son of the priest Mattathias. He led the Maccabean Revolt against the Seleucid Empire (167 – 160 BCE). Handel composed an oratorio titled Judas Maccabaeus in 1746.
Harlequin is the best-known of the zanni or comic servant characters from the Italian Commedia dell’arte.
I couldn’t find reference to “thirty-six misfortunes” of Harlequin but I did find something similar in the book Knowledge for the People by John Timbs (1832):
In Venice was formerly an inimitable actor, and speaking harlequin, named Sacci, who performed in a comedy called The Thirty-two Misfortunes of Harlequin.
Above all they were the copyists of the choirmasters and made endless parts of the motets of Morales and Vittoria.
noun – a short piece of sacred choral music, typically polyphonic and unaccompanied.
Cristobal de Morales (~1500 – 1553) was a Spanish composer of the Renaissance. He is generally considered to be the most influential Spanish composer before Victoria. Almost all of his music is sacred, and all of it is vocal. He wrote over 100 motets.
Tomas Luis de Victoria (sometimes Italianised as da Vittoria; ~1548 – 1611) was the most famous composer in 16th-century Spain, and was one of the most important composers of the Counter-Reformation. Victoria was not only a composer but also an accomplished organist and singer as well as a Catholic priest. He devoted himself exclusively to sacred music. He published his first book of motets in 1572.
He was storing up notebooks of quaint lore against an amusing old age he planned to offer himself back on his estates outside Segovia.
A city in the autonomous region of Castile and Leon, Spain. It is the capital of Segovia Province.
The bitterest tongue in France had remarked only fifty years before: that many people would never have fallen in love if they had not heard about it.
Francois de La Rochefoucauld (1613 – 1680) was a noted French author of maxims and memoirs. He was considered an exemplar of the accomplished 17th-century nobleman. His Maxim 136 is translated as:
There are people who would never be in love had they not heard [others] speak of love.
People would never fall in love if they hadn’t heard love talked about.
He discovered that secret from which one never quite recovers, that even in the most perfect love one person loves less perfectly than the other.
He began reciting his evening psalm aloud. But he had hardly reached A sagitta volante in die when he became aware that Esteban had risen.
Latin: the arrow that flies by day
(A line from Psalm 91: “You will not fear the terror of the night, nor the arrow that flies by day.”)
By now Esteban stood in the dark of the open door. In the unnatural voice, with which we make the greatest declarations of our lives, he muttered: “I’m in your way,” and turned to go.
“You know,” cried Esteban, leaning across the table, “you’re not allowed to kill yourself; you know you’re not allowed. Everybody knows that. But if you jump into a burning house to save somebody, that wouldn’t be killing yourself.”
There are times when it requires a high courage to speak the banal.