BOOK REVIEW / Bridge over the River Why: Colin Sedgwick revisits a classic, The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder, and finds it as haunting as ever

THERE ARE books that haunt you down the years, books that seem to touch and stir something deep inside you. It's as if they have been with you since you were born.

Thornton Wilder's The Bridge of San Luis Rey is of this kind. The first sentence - spare, precise and matter-of-fact - plunges the reader into the heart of the book as surely as its characters are plunged into the gorge beneath the bridge: 'On Friday noon, July the twentieth, 1714, the finest bridge in all Peru broke and precipitated five travellers into the gulf below.' Immediately you are there; you see the little bodies hurtling ant-like to their deaths. As yet you know nothing at all about them. But you want to know: who were these unfortunate five, and why did this appalling thing happen to them?

The idea of the novel could hardly be simpler. Brother Juniper, who happens to witness the accident, determines to establish some correlation between the five deaths and the nature of the five lives that led up to them. Believing as he does in a good and sovereign God, he convinces himself that, given sufficient examination and analysis, the righteous purposes of that God must emerge from what would seem to be simply a haphazard event. He embarks, in short, on a rigorous exercise in applied theodicy - the attempt to justify the ways of God to men - and the Bridge of San Luis Rey becomes his laboratory.

He fails, of course. And his efforts lead directly to his own death - planned, premeditated and engineered; yet, one could say, as meaningless as those of the other five. Not only his inquiries, but also his own fate, serve to deepen the mystery, not to resolve it. If there is indeed a God, then his ways are truly beyond finding out - as, no doubt, Brother Juniper would have known anyway had he taken his Bible with more seriousness.

A great virtue of Wilder's book is that, though it deals with such a fundamentally religious theme, you never sense you are reading a tract or sermon disguised as a novel - as might be said, for example, of Tolstoy's Resurrection. Wilder is hardly even probing or questioning; he is simply observing, with what strikes you as a kind of amused but affectionate sadness.

This is what I see, he says; make of it what you will. The point he is making, if he can be said to be making a point at all, is at one and the same time obvious and profound: both believer and unbeliever, both theist and atheist, will simply be confirmed in their opinions as such facts are set before them. Faith and unbelief rest on far more stubborn foundations than to be vulnerable to merely rational analysis.

Wilder himself comes across as a believer, though of a rather hesitant type, lacking any very real structure of belief. There is, according to his final paragraph, a supreme love of which all other loves are offspring; there is a bridge that cannot and will not break, and that bridge is love.

Whether we agree with the writer or not, we can only be thankful to him for forcing upon us the kind of questions we usually prefer to push from our minds. Why are we here? Is there a purpose and meaning to life? Who or what made us? Why do we die when we do and not at some other time? What happens to us after death?

Such questions flash unbidden into our minds from time to time: we pass a mangled car on the hard shoulder of the motorway and think, 'Ten minutes earlier and that could have been me'; we hear of the premature death of a contemporary, and we find ourselves asking 'Why him and not me?' Once someone has died, do we not quickly conceive a powerful sense of the inevitability of their death - well, that was the way it was obviously always bound to be, wasn't it? Somehow we find the thought comforting. But do they see it like that? Or would they, if they could?

The living assume an unspoken superiority over the dead - isn't there something just slightly patronising about the manner of those attending a funeral? The dead are those who have failed, the ones who didn't make it, poor souls. But those who are left forget that it's only a matter of time before their turn comes.

Perhaps what comes across most forcibly from Wilder's book is an enormous affection and compassion for his fellow human beings. We are shown men and women, with all their arrogance and bombast, all their stupidity and selfishness, for what they really are - puny, vulnerable, the pathetic victims of heredity and environment and circumstance: unless, of course, there really is a just and loving God . . .

Whether it be the foolish and half-crazy Marquess, the innocent Pepita, or the poor devastated Esteban - 'He seemed to shrink away into space, infinitely tiny, infinitely unwanted' - our instinct is to hug them to ourselves, to cry to them that we will stand by them through thick and thin and that everything is going to be all right: only to realise that we don't have arms long enough for the task, nor the authority to give such reassurances; for our lot ultimately is no different from theirs.

At the end all we can do is say what the characters themselves often say to one another on parting, words replete with dignity: 'Go with God.'

The Bridge of San Luis Rey - slightly mocking what it sees, but always with affection rather than spite - exudes a delicacy and a tenderness, a subtlety and an honesty which are only rarely to be found.

'Go with God,' say the characters. Back comes the answer, 'Go with God'. And if indeed there should be no God to go with - then God help us all.