One July morning in 1714, a large bridge outside Lima collapses and plunges five people to their deaths. The collapse is particularly shocking and gains attention because the bridge connects Lima and Cuzco, and hundreds of people pass over it every day. The bridge is even sacred to St. Louis of France, and there’s a small church on one side that is supposed to protect it. It’s “unthinkable” that the bridge could break.
The novel poses its central question—whether or not worldly events have divine meaning—by opening with a cataclysmic and seemingly irrational event, which various characters will struggle to understand and rationalize throughout the novel.
The victims are mourned in a large service in the Lima cathedral, and the entire city is in uproar as a result of the calamity. Servants guiltily return things they’ve stolen from their employers, and “usurers harangued their wives angrily, in defense of usury.” In fact, it’s odd that the disaster gains so much attention, given that calamity is common in Peru—tidal waves and earthquakes are not uncommon, and diseases periodically threaten entire towns.
It’s clear that this incident isn’t just important in itself, but that it’s a symbolic event through which characters can try to understand that many calamities whose occurrence pervades heir life.
One witness to the bridge collapse is Brother Juniper, an Italian missionary who is trying to convert the indigenous population to Christianity. On the morning in question, Brother Juniper is walking towards the bridge himself but stops to rest after climbing up a steep hill. He’s thinking optimistically about his ministerial work when he sees the bridge fall into the valley below. Rather than feeling thankful that he wasn’t killed himself, Brother Juniper begins to wonder why those particular five people had to die. Brother Juniper believes that “if there were any plan in the universe at all,” then he must be able to decipher it through “those lives so suddenly cut off.” He decides to investigate the victims’ lives.
By carefully detailing the quotidian coincidences that prevent Brother Juniper from dying in the bridge collapse, the novel suggests that his salvation is the result of coincidence, rather than fate or divine will. However, Brother Juniper does not experience it this way. He has a deep-seated religious conviction and a desire to believe that a divine plan is governing his life.
Brother Juniper believes it’s high time for a theologian to take on such an investigation—he wants to be the person to help religion “take its place among the exact sciences.” Of course, he’s witnessed disasters before among his individual parishioners, but he believes that this calamity is a “sheer Act of God” that creates a “perfect laboratory.”
Brother Juniper’s attempt to apply scientific rhetoric, like the idea of the “laboratory,” to abstract philosophical questions, seems ridiculous—yet it reflects the conflict between religious and scientific methods of analyzing worldly events that pervaded the eighteenth century.
It might seem like such an experiment would be the result of a religious skeptic, but Brother Juniper is a completely earnest believer. He merely wants to prove his beliefs absolutely to the people he’s trying to convert. He’s often dreamed of such experiments before, and even thought of recording all of his “Prayers for Rain” ceremonies and their (not always consistent) results.
Brother Juniper may be a true believer, but throughout the novel his somewhat hapless experiments will tend to reinforce doubt rather than devotion. It’s interesting that he wants to combine divinity and science here, suggesting that scientific thought has become so powerful that he must prove his faith through the paradigm of science.
For the next six years, Brother Juniper traverses Lima, interrogating the victims’ friends and families about their inner lives and filling dozens of notebooks with even the most seemingly trivial facts. From this information, he crafts an enormous book. As the narrator will explain later, the book is eventually burned publicly in Lima. However, a secret copy survives in a university library, recording the life of each victim and “concluding with a dignified passage describing why God had settled upon that person and upon that day for His demonstration of wisdom.”
Brother Juniper’s book expresses confidence both in the existence of a divine plan for human life and in the author’s ability to interpret that plan. This makes it a marked contrast to the novel itself, which will thoroughly undermine both these principles.
However, despite all his hard work, Brother Juniper is unable to plumb the secret depths of any of the victims. The narrator wonders whether he himself will fall prey to the same mistakes as the monk, even though he “[claims] to know so much more” than Brother Juniper.
Even though the narrator often differentiates himself from Brother Juniper by making fun of his efforts, the narrator emphasizes the novel’s limits, as well.
The narrator concludes his introduction by musing that some people think that “to the gods we are like the flies that the boys kill on a summer day,” while others believe that not even a bird dies without God’s knowledge and intention.