Trevor Wedlake's Writings
|Just occasionally, a writer has the power to tell a story that stays with its readers, almost haunting them, down many years. The Bridge at San Luis Rey is one such. The author, Thornton Wilder, a 30 year-old American intellectual, published it in 1927, and dedicated it to his mother. In 1928 it won the Pulitzer Prize, and, in 1998 was adjudged by the Editorial Board of the American Modern Library, one of the 100 best novels of the 20C.
The story is quite concisely told, not a great, rambling symphony of a book, more like a baroque fugue in that respect, and, as the fugue demands of its listeners, so this story requires the close attention of its readers.
The story is set in the early 18C in the old Spanish colony of Peru. The bridge at San Luis Rey was on the high road between Lima and the old Inca capital of Cuzco. It had been there for more than a century, woven by the Inca of osier, with handrails of dried vines. Horses, coaches and chairs crossed on rafts over the narrow river below, otherwise everyone used it regularly; “even the Viceroy used it, even the Archbishop used it.” But at noon on the 20th July, 1714, it snapped, and five people on it fell to their deaths in the gorge below. Even in a country acquainted with disaster and pestilence, the fall of the bridge provoked a massive shock wave among a population who knew that any of them might have been victims, and they spoke of it in whispers, and made the sign of the cross.
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Brother Juniper, walking near the bridge, heard a great twanging sound, and looked up just as the bridge fell. Brother Juniper was a small, red-headed Franciscan, out from northern Italy to convert the Indians, and had been feeling quite pleased with the way things were going. He’d opened a new mud church and a few more Indians were coming to Mass. He was of that breed of men who firmly believes that the whole of life and the world are ordered and planned, that there was nothing, not even a feather falling from a sparrow’s wing, that was not known to God. And he asked himself “why these five people had been chosen to be on the bridge at that critical moment”. So it was that he determined to enquire into the lives of the five to discover the answer to his question.
Over the next 6 years he knocked on hundreds of doors and asked thousands of questions, some of them seemingly completely irrelevant. Out of all this came a great book with his findings and conclusions. However, some judges deemed it and its author to be heretical and one sunny morning after a night in gaol, Juniper and his book were taken and burned together in public.
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The Marquesa Doňa Maria de Montmayor was an exceedingly rich eccentric, often drunk, aristocrat, estranged from her daughter, Clara, who lived in Spain. But she longed for her love. The marquesa kept up a barrage of letters which took 6 months to arrive. They were written at great length following a specially observed sobering up period. They were so formal, styled and drafted, that, a century later, they were found in every Spanish classroom as models of Spanish literature. In a reply to her mother one day, Doňa Clara remarked, without embellishment, “my child is due in October.” This news threw the marquesa into a great panic. All the local taboos and superstitions must be strictly observed. She refused to have a knot tied in the house. All the even stairs were marked with red chalk, and must not be stepped on. The maids were forbidden to tie up their hair, candles were kept lighted above her daughter’s bed. “She concealed on her person all the ridiculous symbols of a happy delivery.” Finally, she felt obliged to make one last observance: she must make a pilgrimage to the shrine of Santa Maria de Cluxambuqua.
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Twin baby boys were found one morning abandoned at the door of the convent. The abbess quickly took them in, found a wet nurse, and named them Estaban and Manuel. They were identical, no one ever knew them apart. When they grew up they worked cleaning and polishing all the churches in Lima. Everyone knew them. When a priest took the sacrament to the sick, one of them would be striding behind swinging the censer. Later they became scribes and made a good living writing letters and copying music for the choirmasters. Manuel wrote very intimate letters for Camila Perichole, the most famous actress in Lima, swearing “by the Virgin Mary” that he would tell no one, not even Esteban.
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Uncle Pio was the illegitimate son of a Spanish nobleman, who left his father’s hacienda and ran off to Madrid at the age of 10, and lived on his wits. He had contempt for the rich, for whom he ran errands, distributed handbills and so on. He lived with travelling circuses, had fights, and was attached to all the theatres in town. His main ambition was to be in or near them. He also loved, and was well-versed in, Spanish literature, and, by borrowing and stealing, had discovered its treasures. He was contemptuous of all those well-off people who had no feel for it. When life became over-complicated, and following a row in a brothel, he moved out to Peru. His real adventure came when he discovered the actress Camila Perichole (real name Micaela Villagas). He always worshipped beautiful women, “he needed their company almost as much as oxygen.” He became her critic, advisor, confidante, errand boy, secretary. He arranged all her performances. She was an actress always in search of perfection. Camila was much admired by the Viceroy, and became his mistress. At the palace she learned the art of fine living, and produced 3 children by him, the youngest of whom was Jaime, a frail, delicate little boy. The Viceroy also discovered Uncle Pio and recognised his many talents. He invited him, along with a sea-going figure named Captain Alvarado, and the Archbishop to late-night parties when they would talk lovingly of Spain. They felt a bit at the end of the world, out in the colony. “If Christ rode again into Jerusalem, how long would it take the news to get to Peru ?”
Throughout this sombre tale, the author has gone out of his way to make plain his familiarity with the church and its nature. There are, variously, mentions of the Dies Irae, the Kyrie, a Latin quotation from Psalm 91 and the composer Tomàs Luis Vittoria, who wrote only for the church. The story is really all about love, lost love, unrequited love, longed for love, and this reader, who first encountered the book 70 years ago, feels that the tale is permeated with the fragrance of St Paul’s message on the subject in the best-remembered of all his letters from Rome - “love is very patient, very kind, knows no jealousy, seeks no reward, is always eager to believe the best, never glad when others go wrong, never disappears. Furthermore, the author refers to one of the marquesa’s letters to her daughter as her “First Corinthians”.
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