The novel begins with Michael, a fifteen-year-old boy in Germany, weak with illness. One day in October, Michael is walking home from school when he becomes violently sick near a building on Bahnhofstrasse (the name of a street). Already ashamed for becoming increasingly weak, he becomes even more ashamed for vomiting.
Part 1 opens with Michael’s illness and feelings of shame, sowing a sense of unease in the novel and setting the stage for the complexities of guilt that the narrator will later explore.
A woman comes out and rescues Michael, handling him roughly “almost [like] an assault.” She brings him into the courtyard of the building, and cleans the vomit off him and the sidewalk with water from an outdoor tap. Realizing that he is overwhelmed and crying, she hugs him. Though she calls him “kid,” Michael is very much aware of her body, as well as the smell of his vomit, and stops crying.
The woman’s actions are presented as both kind and antagonistic (her assistance is “an assault”), foreshadowing the conflicting feelings Michael later harbors about her. This moment marks the first instance of the woman’s role as Michael’s mother figure as well as the beginning of Michael’s sexuality.
After inquiring where he lives, the woman walks Michael to his building on Blumenstrasse. When Michael is home, he tells his mother about his sickness and the woman who helped him. His mother calls a doctor, who diagnoses him with hepatitis. Michael’s mother instructs Michael to buy the woman some flowers once he is better, to say thank you and to introduce himself. Four months later, Michael heads out to Bahnhofstrasse to visit the woman.
That Michael’s mother is the one who initially insists on his visiting the woman, which triggers their affair, reinforces the woman’s role as a kind of mother figure for Michael.