Billiards at Half-Past Nine

by Heinrich Boll

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1081

In this, one of Heinrich Böll’s most structurally complicated works, the history of the Faehmel family over a fifty-year period is narrated by several family members. Through monologue, memory, and flashbacks, historical and personal events since the turn of the century are recounted, mirroring political and social developments in Germany itself. The eightieth birthday of the grandfather, Heinrich—September 6, 1958—marks a turning point for four members of the Faehmel family. Each of them has withdrawn from an active public life, preferring instead the protection of private routine. On this day, however, they will come to terms with the past that haunts them and forge a new identity as a united family. The time span of the novel measures approximately ten hours on this single day.

The first three chapters of the novel gradually clarify the mysterious behavior of the architect Robert Faehmel. Faehmel spends little time in his office, leaving punctually every day for an unknown destination. Faehmel’s own secretary does not know where he goes, or why; she has only his explicit instructions that he is not to be disturbed. In addition, his two partners in the firm never visit the office, and all contact between them is carried out by mail. The reader soon discovers that Faehmel spends his mornings playing billiards in the Prince Heinrich Hotel, speaking only to a young bellboy, Hugo, who is there to guarantee Faehmel’s privacy.

While standing at the billiard table, Faehmel reminisces aloud to Hugo about the events in his life. During the advent of National Socialism, Faehmel was drawn instinctively to a group of dissenters and pacifists whom, in retrospect, he characterizes as “lambs”; their amateurishly attempted assassination of a Nazi leader failed, and they were forced to flee the country to escape punishment at the hands of the brutal Nazi conformists or “buffaloes.” Faehmel later returned to Germany, was inducted into the army, and spent the waning days of the war demolishing buildings for a demented officer who insisted on creating a “field of fire,” a clear zone which was to provide an unrestricted firing line to the enemy. During his last mission, Faehmel convinced the officer to blow up St. Anthony’s Abbey—built by his own father, Heinrich Faehmel—though it was of no military or strategic value whatsoever. Eventually, Faehmel reveals that this destruction was not an act of hatred, perpetrated against his father, but rather an attempt to destroy institutions which had collaborated with the “buffaloes’” reign of terror. Faehmel’s comrades in this military venture have since become his two enigmatic partners in the architectural firm.

In an abrupt narrative change, the fourth chapter is devoted to Heinrich Faehmel’s reminiscences. He recalls the day, fifty years before, when he first arrived in town. He was young and confident of his plans and thus of his future: Within a year, he would win the architectural competition to design St. Anthony’s Abbey, permanently establishing his professional reputation; he would create an image or persona of himself, at once dependable and unique; and he would marry a beautiful young woman from the higher social circles. Recalling his fulfillment of those ambitions from the perspective of his eightieth birthday, he is convinced that he can continue to live out his days untouched by the chaos of historical events.

Chapter 5 presents the memories of Johanna Faehmel through an extended interior monologue. In 1942, alarmed at the insanity of a world which was beyond her control, Johanna had herself committed to a mental hospital; she has remained there voluntarily in “inner emigration” for the past sixteen years. She now mirrors Heinrich’s recollections, but...

(This entire section contains 1081 words.)

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from her own point of view. She compares her two sons: Robert the “lamb,” who is persecuted and flees Nazi brutality, and Otto the “buffalo,” who died in combat near Kiev at the age of twenty-five, an unquestioning Fascist and conformist. In her disjointed ramblings, Johanna mourns her personal losses and pledges to sacrifice for the future good. On her husband’s eightieth birthday, Johanna leaves the mental hospital with plans to assassinate a former Nazi who has been able to maintain a position in the present government. Later in the day, she fires a pistol into the passing parade, but she only wounds her target. It is clear that she will be returned to the mental hospital for the remainder of her life.

From this point forward, the novel concentrates on the events of September 6, 1958, beginning with the return of the exile Alfred Schrella. He had been tortured and persecuted by the Nazis because he was a “lamb”; his flight into Holland saved his life, as it did that of his friend Robert. Upon his return, however, Schrella feels that he cannot remain in present-day Germany—not simply because the “buffaloes” are still in power, but because he cannot find any “lambs.” Schrella is not an activist and lacks political engagement, preferring to embarrass the police chief socially, rather than prosecute him for past criminal activities.

The youngest Faehmel, the grandson Joseph, is currently helping in the restoration of St. Anthony’s Abbey. On this day, he discovers that his father was responsible for the wartime demolition of the abbey, his grandfather’s most significant construction. Joseph does not know whether to continue with constructive architecture, move into demolitions, or abandon the profession entirely.

With Johanna’s assassination attempt, the family’s birthday celebration at the hotel is interrupted. Instead, they meet at Heinrich’s old architecture office, the site of the family’s original success. Sitting atop piles of old construction designs, the intimate circle eats a cake—designed as a replica of St. Anthony’s Abbey—to celebrate their reconciliation.

During the course of September 6, 1958, each of the four Faehmels finds his or her way back into the family and, thus, back into the present. Johanna must attempt an act of political assassination to halt the spread of evil into the next generation. Heinrich supports his wife’s decision to shoot a political opportunist and fight, however unsuccessfully, the continued dominance of the “buffaloes”; indeed, he accepts Schrella, the “lamb,” as a son. Robert is reconciled with his father and, in turn, adopts the orphan Hugo as a representative of the next generation of “lambs.” Joseph must still sort out the confusing events of the day, but it is clear that he will remain in the family and carry on either the father’s or the grandfather’s legacy.