We open with a narrator explaining how everything in the world began and how time has always existed: "before prehistory there was the prehistory of prehistory and there was the never and there was the yes" (1.1).
This is … not very encouraging. We don't know yet where we're at, who's doing the talking, or what the story might be about, but we are getting a nice taste of big philosophical ideas like existence and time. It's like walking straight into the writer's brain. Horrifying.
We learn that our narrator is a writer, and we learn why he writes: "So long as there are no answers, I shall go on writing" (1.3). Okay then! Guess that's answered, at least.
See, the thing is that he's pretty desperate to arrive at the truth, and he figures that writing is the best way to do that.
We finally get moving when the narrator tells us how he was inspired to write the story: "In a street in Rio de Janeiro I caught a glimpse of perdition on the face of a girl from the North-east" (1.6). Greaaaaat.
Quick brain snack: The northeast of Brazil is (or at least was) the poorest region in the country. We're talking eating-rats-and-lizards poor.
After saying that he wants to write a simple story with, oh, seven characters or so, the narrator introduces himself as Rodrigo S.M. Pay attention, 'cause this is the first and last time we see his name in the book.
Now we find out that the narrator feel like it's his duty to tell this girl's story and make her see how miserable she is. Dude, that sounds kind of mean.
But it's not just for her. There are thousands of girls like this in Rio, and no one notices or cares about them. So, Rodrigo is going to make us notice one.
Aaaaand … we're back into philosophy. Prayer empties the soul; words have a power that exceeds even the words themselves. Got it?
Despite the fact that Rodrigo clearly has a vocabulary full of fancy words and some really not simple ideas, he emphasizes that he wants to keep his words simple.
All right. Philosophizing over. (For now.)
Here's some more deets on the girl: she's nineteen. She's from the "backwoods of Alagoas" (1.16), and she's a typist, though not a very good one.
Guess that's enough information, because now the narrator starts reflecting on his own identity.
He's evidently got some self-esteem issues, because he wonders, "Who has not asked himself at some time or other: am I a monster or is this what it means to be a person?" (1.17).
Then he informs us that the girl, too, "does not know herself."
Huh. Wonder how he's so sure of that?
Evidently, he's sure because she's still walking around. If she were "foolish enough to ask herself 'Who am I?,'" the narrator says, "she would fall flat on her face" (1.18).
We get the sense that this guy isn't much fun at parties.
Now he's back to talking about the story. Don't expect too much, he warns us, because this story is pretty plain. But it's also "opaque," "despised," and "discordant" (1.20), so we're thinking maybe get the tissues handy.
After another philosophical reflection on the complexity of words (and facts and deeds and reality), he reveals that "this lengthy preamble is intended to conceal the poverty of [his] story …" (1.22).
No way, really?
Finally, he resolves that he "must write about this girl of the North-east otherwise [he] shall choke" (1.25). No, no, please go on.
But we guess not yet, because he now addresses a series of mostly philosophical ideas about himself and the girl.
We start with solitude. Rodrigo S.M. claims that he is not afraid of storms because he himself is the night's darkness.
That's … deep.
Now we're onto the reduction of one's self, and how the girl has managed to reduce herself to herself ("… she was guided by her own remote control"), and that after many failures, he has done the same.
We're not 100% on what this means, but, okay. That's cool.
Here's another similarity: Rodrigo S.M. explains that he and the girl "live exclusively in the present" (1.30).
After waxing all philosophical for a bit, our fancy-pants narrator confesses that really he's just dealing with a massive case of writer's block.
Gee, we could have told you that.
It turns out all this deep thinking is really just a distraction from the fact that the dude can't seem to put a pen to paper.
Besides just dealing with writer's block, he also questions his right to write about this girl. While he claims to be some marginal guy who doesn't fit into any social category, we can still gather that he is well-off and cultured, which is definitely opposite from the social position of his protagonist, the girl.
All these worries have him scared to start—not to mention that he doesn't "even know the girl's name."
Come to think of it, neither do we.
He explains how even though it seems like this story is straightforward and easy to narrate, it actually isn't: "I must render clear something that is almost obliterated and can scarcely be deciphered" (1.33).
Well, dunno, it doesn't seem too straightforward to us so far.
You see, his subject, the girl, is practically invisible to society. It's hard to write about something that everyone has pretty much already written off as unimportant.
This section ends with yet another philosophical reflection on the nature of language and existence.
Color us shocked.
The narrator says that the word "must be simply itself" and should not be something it isn't.
Maybe try some meditation before sitting down to write, Rodrigo?
The narrator then drop this bomb: "I want to accept my freedom without reaching the conclusion like so many others: that existence is only for fools and lunatics: for it would seem that to exist is illogical" (1.37).
Okay, Shmoop-a-doops, let's pause for a brief philosophy snack.
Existentialism is a philosophical stance that's interested in what the individual thinks and feels. A lot of philosophy is top-down, meaning that it starts with big systems and then applies those systems to the way individuals act and think. Existentialism works bottom-up. It looks as how individuals experience things like free will, choice, and personal responsibility as a way to help individuals figure out who they are and what they're doing here.
Sound familiar? Maybe not yet, but it will. It should start sounding a lot like the narrator's philosophical talk. You know, like the sense that the narrator wants to find meaning in existence—maybe through writing this book.