Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

The Bridge of San Luis Rey


I read this book in high school. Actually, I was forced to read it in high school. Weren’t you? I’m not saying it was a bad book, I’d probably enjoy it today, but I only read enough to pass the tests back then, and all I remember is a bridge collapsed and killed some people. It was filmed twice before, in 1929 and 1944. Now here comes this glossy, gorgeous version, filmed in some of the great locations of Spain (filling in for Peru), with a really terrific cast … and it’s strangely unaffecting. I guess I just didn’t believe Kathy Bates, Robert De Niro, and Harvey Keitel as early 18th century people, but that’s not all of it. I checked a couple of online summaries, and apparently this is a quite faithful adaptation, so that’s not it, either.
You know how when an airplane crashes, or a building falls down, or a hurricane sweeps away an entire town, a handful of dazed survivors struggle from the wreckage, toward the mikes and television cameras and always, always, have this to say: “God was watching out for me!” For me! For little ol’, God-blessed me! This is a horrible statement, when you think about it, but I forgive them, because of what they’ve just been through. And I suspect that a lot of them, when they have time to think about what God had in mind when He stomped so enthusiastically on the hopes and dreams and lives and children of all those people who died, why He had such a hard-on for them … they suffer from survivor guilt, which can be summed up as: Why me? Am I really that special? Am I a better person than that mother of three and her kids who burned to a crisp in Row 14? What about the guy next door, crushed and drowned in the storm, who was always ready to help anyone in the neighborhood while I sat on my complacent ass? Good can come of this, people can change their lives, rededicate themselves to something larger than themselves, as they struggle to come to terms with that awful question.
Why me?
That’s the central question in The Bridge of San Luis Rey. Why those five people? Franciscan Brother Juniper spends a good part of his life trying to construct a theological calculus that would answer that question. He gets nowhere, but attracts the attention of the Church, of the Inquisition, and the Church doesn’t want questions like that asked, much less answered. Presto! Auto de fe, starring Brother Juniper. My own answer is that there is no answer, that it’s all random, but lots of people can’t accept that.
I guess my problem with this story, or at least this telling of it, is that there should be some emotional involvement as we ponder the baffling unfairness of the world, and this just didn’t get to me. Maybe I should try the novel.