This section of Wilder’s novel is about twin brothers named Manuel and Esteban. It is as powerfully symbolic as the scenes I’ve described already, if not more so (and takes on added significance for me, at least, as I read it during Holy Week approaching Good Friday and Easter). I think the best place to start is by telling you part of what Wilder does with these brothers.
The brothers were foundlings abandoned at the door of a convent. They were so identical that, even when grown, none could tell them apart. They went everywhere together, almost completely silent except for the invented language they spoke to one another. They were hard workers, sharing in labor together, eating meals together…their lives centered around each other.
But then Manuel met a woman, a beautiful woman. She was so famous and beautiful and desired, and he so poor and simple, that he knew they could never be lovers. Yet he was completely transfixed by her, and so he began doing work for her, secretly—simple work writing letters for her, mostly to men she conducted torrid affairs with. He kept this life secret from his brother, until one night it all came out, disastrously. For Manuel had room in his heart to love two people, but Esteban could not conceive it; he could not imagine a world in which Manuel cared for someone else, lived to be in someone else’s life, and not his own. Wilder doesn’t portray this as jealousy or possessiveness, but rather simplicity (almost inadequacy), as Esteban struggles to understand. Esteban tells his brother to go, to follow his heart and be with the woman, to leave him behind. Manuel refuses, sees the pain in his brother’s eyes, and announces that he will never speak to her or look on her again.
This he does, faithfully. And then Manuel is injured and falls ill. In his weakness he lashes out at Esteban, who tends him gently and with care for days without rest—Manuel accuses him of destroying his happiness, only to repent of these accusations whenever the pain subsides a little and he can think more clearly. At last Manuel dies.
And here the strangeness really settles in. For Esteban tells all he meets that his brother Esteban is dead. No one can tell them apart, and all believe what “Manuel” is telling them. The body of Manuel is buried under the name “Esteban”. Esteban roams the streets. He makes a name for himself as a hero who saved children from burning buildings. Finally, having encountered two people who have borne awful griefs for those they loved, he admits to the second of them that he is no hero. That he raced into the burning buildings so that he might die—he says that it is not permitted to seek one’s own death, but to risk it is not sinful. He prepares to take a journey, to travel the oceans far from Lima where he will not be known. And as he travels to the sea to embark, the bridge falls and Esteban is given into death.
I tell the whole story (or much of it, at least) because it is impossible to understand how powerful this is without seeing all these parts in concert. Any one of them is not that distinctive or impressive—a brother who prevents happiness, a man mistaken for being a hero when he is really a taker of suicidal risks. But the organic whole is a vision that caught me up completely. I still don’t what to make of all these pieces—what does it mean that they spoke a language none could understand, for example? But I can see the heart of the story. Somehow, some way, Esteban seeks out death, by burying his name, by abandoning his reason to the flames of a burning house, and by leaving his only home forever, only to find death unexpectedly and abruptly.
Wilder promised at the beginning to make sense of the deaths of these people on the bridge—I don’t know…I just don’t know yet. There is something that ties Esteban, the man who cut off his brother from love and then cut himself off from life, to the Marquesa who sent letters to a daughter who would not love her and forgave a woman who had not offended her, and to the Marquesa’s serving girl who would not risk herself by sending a letter admitting love and admiration. There is something powerful behind the simplicity of Wilder’s writing (which is not ornate—I’m intentionally paraphrasing rather than quoting because his language doesn’t win you over in a sentence like Wharton’s….he’s playing a much slower and more patient game). I don’t know where I’m being moved to yet, but I’m being moved.