The opening part tells us of this terrible accident, and the impact it had on the people of Peru, and most crucially on Brother Juniper, the only witness to the event, and his determination to find some meaning in the apparently random loss of life. He is determined to bring some science to religion and so prove that God acts in the world; right from the outset he has in his mind the outcome he desires from his research (I'm pretty sure that's unscientific) but in the end the church burns him as a heretic, along with his book.
The Marquesa de Montemayor and her servant Pepita are the first story. The Marquesa, Dona Maria, spends her life mourning the loss of her daughter, who is not dead, but who failed to return the adoration she feels and accepted a marriage proposal that would take her as far from her mother as she could go. Dona Maria writes endless letters to her daughter, seeking some sign of the love she craves, allowing her own existence to become meaningless. Pepita has been placed as her companion by MadreMaria del Pilar, the Abbess at the convent that raised her.
Esteban is another of MadreMaria del Pilar's orphans, who is suffering inconsolably following the death of his twin brother Manuel. In her attempts to protect him from his own misery she arranges for Captain Alvarado to offer him employment, an agreement which leads to his crossing the bridge at the fateful moment. He is linked to the other travellers because his brother had been in love with a certain actress called Camila Perichole, protégée and mother respectively to the final two unfortunate travellers.
Uncle Pio is returning to Lima with Jaime, whom he has undertaken to protect and educate, following his mother's withdrawal from a society that she has worked so hard to integrate into. He is the most enigmatic of the characters having led a somewhat dissolute life, his protective relationship with the Perichole is his saving grace, he mentors her acting and promotes her career, until she decides she wants to leave behind this disreputable profession and seek social acceptability. Despite the rift between them he determines to save her son Jaime from isolation after she is scarred by smallpox and retreats from the city.
It is really the closing part that draws together the aftermath of the accident, focussing on the people left behind. The Abbess is visited by Dona Clara, the daughter of the Marquesa, who's rejection had caused her so much suffering, seeking, it seems, some kind of redeption for her behaviour. The Abbess suffers her own sense of loss, for she had hoped to mould Pepita in her own image, to continue her work with the poor and the desperate of Lima after her death. She is also visited by Camila Perichole, inconsolable from the death of her son and the removal of her two daughters to school in Spain, again seeking to make some sense of what has happened. But I was left with the feeling that some consolation comes from these new bonds and that positive changes could result.
The writing reminded me very much of Gabriel Garcia Marquez; maybe it's just something about Latin America and the way of life there, the formal way in which people are named, and the historical setting, it made me think of 'Love in the Time of Cholera'. It is the lovely quiet little details about the people and their setting that really make the book, give you a sense of them being real. But the book is really about the meaning of life. It is a philosophical reflection on whether life and death can be meaningful. Not just from a religious point of view, but in the general sense of whether there is purpose in the choices we make and the lives we lead, when it can all disappear to abruptly, unforeseen. I liked it because it did not try and give any answers, but just told the stories of the people who die and the convoluted ways their lives are interconnected and interdependent. The book is about these bonds between people, and how important they are to the meaning of life. All of the characters in the story had stong bonds with the others that affected their lives in powerful ways: Esteban's bond with his twin was so strong that his life became unbearable without him. His devotion to Manuel is shown most poignantly in his reaction to the love affair with Camila and then Manuel's injury and infection that led to his death. Dona Maria's devotion to her daughter simply dominates her life, but her love demands so much in return that the girl's only defense is to run away. Uncle Pio, so selfish for the most part, is equally devoted to Camila, unable to stay away even when she banishes him from her home. Pepita becomes strangely devoted to Dona Maria, in spite of really being a very lonely and confused young girl. I ended up feeling that really the Abbess, MadreMaria del Pilar, was the central character of the book. Her devotion to the poor, unloved and unwanted people is the ultimate example of selfish selflessness. She is afraid that no one can take on her role because no one will have quite the same level of commitment and devotion, how can she trust anyone to do the job properly. Then she finds Pepita, and works to instill in her all the atributes and virtues she feels are necessary. And then Pepita is taken from her, and she finally realises that there is only herself and she must do what she can in her life and not concern herself with what might happen after.
I'm not sure I have really managed to get across the subtleties of this tale but I hope it might interest some out there. Another very short book (120 pages), and one that will give a great deal of food for thought.