The Bridge of San Luis Rey

Philosophical Books (and the Death Sentence)

Okay, so there are books and there are philosophical books and when you hear the adjective philosophical in this context, you slam the book shut and run a mile or more, without so much as looking back – and by god, I don’t blame you. Twice I had to study philosophy at university and twice it bored me to tears.


Now, talking about philosophical books, there are the ones that only philosophy professors and people wearing thick horn-rimmed glasses read… and nobody can understand, including the professor who set it as compulsory reading. But there also are the likes of the Bible and the Persian Letters of Montesquieu and the Rhetoric of Aristotle and War and Peace by Tolstoy, and I don’t think you should slam any of those shut – whether you consider yourself philosophical or not, whether you had a university education or not, or indeed whether you wear thick horn-rimmed glasses or not. You know what, describing a book as philosophical should not necessarily be a death sentence.

So since we have freed philosophical books from the death row, how about taking a look at one? I propose The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder.

Three Simple  Reasons to Read The Bridge of San Luis Rey

It’s Short

The first reason – and the best in case you’ve still got doubts about philosophical – is that The Bridge of San Luis Rey is beautifully short. Some 130 pages, all told. This is a good thing: some of the best books I’ve ever read are pretty damn short. (Cue to the discerning reader here.) Although great writers at times go on at a great length, we don’t measure greatness by word count… which brings us neatly to:

It’s Great

The Bridge of San Luis Rey has got a great beginning, a great end and some great stuff in between.

The beginning:

On Friday noon, July the twentieth, 1714, the finest bridge in all Peru broke and precipitated five travellers into the gulf below.

Talk about starting in medias res: I always get hooked by beginnings in which the protagonists drop dead straightaway. (Half a century later Gabriel García Márquez employed the same tactic to great effect in Chronicle of a Death Foretold.)

The end:

There is a land of the living and a land of the dead and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning.

You can buy into the sentiment or not, but you have to admit that the book has been wound up in an elegant allegorical manner: we have come a full circle from death and the broken bridge to survival and an everlasting bridge.

In between the real and the allegorical bridge:

You get a deceptively simple plot told with the lightest touch of wry humour. A bridge in Peru collapses, killing the five people on it. A Franciscan brother witnesses the disaster and decides to find out why was it those five who died: was it divine intervention? His investigation leads us to learn about the lives of the five, the people associated with them and the monk himself.

But this is not a religious book – Wilder goes well beyond merely addressing questions of faith and the theory of divine intervention. In examining the life of these five characters, he ticks off one topic of human interest after another:

  • love √
  • obsession √
  • loneliness √
  • thirst for knowledge √
  • loyalty √
  • dysfunctional relationships √
  • grief √

Apologies to Mr Wilder if I left something out.

It Will Make You Look Good If You Die in the Middle of It

P. J. O’Rourke once said that you should read stuff that “will make you look good if you die in the middle of it”; well, The Bridge of San Luis Rey did actually win the Pulitzer Prize. You can look unambiguously sophisticated with this book, lauded by various passing critics as ‘the towering achievement’ of American literature. Given that American literature boasts the likes of Hemingway, Mark Twain, Steinbeck & Co., this is pretty good going by any standards.

The Meaning of Life

“Yet for all his diligence Brother Juniper never knew the central passion of Doña Maria’s life; nor of Uncle Pio’s, not even of Esteban’s. And I, who claim to know so much more, isn’t it possible that even I have missed the very spring within the spring?”

When we were undergraduates, we used to sit up all night with a bottle of cheap wine discussing the meaning of life – and we considered the time well spent. At this point I could spoil the entire book by analysing it to death the way they taught me at university and telling you what its philosophical message is. But as it happens, I don’t think I’ve ever met two people who were in complete agreement on what the book actually is about, let alone what the central message is. I tell you what: Why don’t you read it and come back to tell me what you got out of it? And then we can sit up all night and (dis)agree.

I’ll bring the cheap wine.

You might also like:
Gabriel García Márquez, Minus Magical Realism: about one of the best short books you'll ever read!
⇒ Quotes: First LinesThe Last Inca Suspension Bridge
⇒ Monty Python's Philosophers' Football
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