Robert Fähmel (FAY-mehl), or Faehmel, a forty-three-year-old architect, demolitions expert, and widower. He is a distinguished looking gentleman with a red scar on the bridge of his nose. His days are spent according to a strict routine that stresses an almost total withdrawal from public life. Even his business associates and former army buddies do not, as a rule, see him. His secretary, Leonore, sees him only for an hour every business day. Robert inherited his father’s architectural firm. On the day of the novel’s plot, he reminisces about his life. His father had built the abbey of St. Anton, and, Robert had demolished it in the closing days of the war. He had done so on a military pretext; his real reason, however, was revenge. the monks and their abbot had partaken of “the sacrament of the buffalo”; that is, they had supported the Nazis. Robert has managed to keep his culpability a secret; not even his son, Joseph, who rebuilt the monastery, knows. Only his father suspects. Robert, as a young man, had resisted Nazism, and he was persecuted for it, even as a schoolboy. He and another of his classmates, Alfred Schrella, had to seek refuge in Amsterdam. Robert’s mother, who was acquainted with the administrative head of the province, intervened and secured his amnesty in exchange for the promise that her son never again meddle in politics. Robert spent the war years as a demolitions expert in the army. He rose to the rank of captain. Since his return to his hometown, he has hewed closely to a rigid and intensely private routine. Every day at half-past nine, he plays billiards in the Prince Heinrich Hotel. Only Hugo, the bellboy, is allowed in the room. It is to him that he tells his life’s story. In the end, he adopts Hugo as his son and signs over to him his landholdings. He adopts him in lieu of a son that his wife, Edith, might have borne him if she had not been killed in an air raid. Robert seeks to come to terms with his own past and with that of his country, and he seeks to avoid or to punish all those whom he knows to be tarnished by their Nazi past. He has given strict instructions to Leonore not to allow anyone near him, excepting his family and Alfred Schrella.
Heinrich Fähmel (HIN -rihkh), Robert’s father, an eighty-year-old architect and privy councillor. He is slim and robust, the son of a peasant. He is the founder of a well-known and respected architectural firm. At the age of thirty, he won a competition for best design of a monastery and was propelled into the forefront of architects in town. He cultivates a public image of an unusual man and artist by adhering to a rigid daily routine that includes a special breakfast at the Café Kroner. He married Johanna Kilb, the daughter of the attorney who supervised the competition. He served as a captain with the army engineers in World War I. He won two Iron Crosses, which he later discards as a token of his antiwar and anti-imperialist sentiments. He lost one of his sons to the Nazis, because he permitted him to admire military power, and he wishes to avoid that in the future for the sake of his grandchildren. Heinrich and Johanna had seven children, of whom Robert is the sole survivor. Heinrich tells his life’s story to Leonore, whom he has hired for the day to tidy up his office. His eightieth birthday is...
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about to be celebrated in the Café Kroner when he learns of his wife’s arrival at the Prince Heinrich Hotel. the party at the café is cancelled; it takes place in his office instead.
Johanna Fähmel (yoh-HAH-nah), Heinrich’s wife, a seventy-year-old patient in a mental hospital. She is a resolute and principled woman, although obsessive at times. In her unswerving opposition to power and privilege, to lies and terror, she refuses any advantage that might accrue to her because of her husband’s prominence. She gives away bread, butter, and honey from the abbey and forces her family to subsist on its official food rations alone. Her losses during the war, Otto’s allegiance to the Nazis and his death at the front, and Robert’s persecution have taken their toll: She had a nervous breakdown. Once committed to a mental hospital, she finds it convenient to feign continued illness, allowing her to oppose the regime with impunity. On her husband’s eightieth birthday, she resolves to kill Ben Wackes, a former Nazi and persecutor of her son who now leads the “blue-tunics,” a neo-Nazi group. She contrives to steal a pistol from the hospital gardener. Instead of Wackes, however, she shoots a minister of the government at the hotel. the man is wounded, but he survives.
Alfred Schrella, a childhood friend of Robert and his brother-in-law. Alfred and Robert were in Amsterdam together as refugees from Nazi persecution. Schrella, however, continues in exile until September 6, 1958. He has returned to his hometown after twenty-two years abroad in Holland and Britain. He is now stateless. He tells Robert that he will not stay, because he cannot live in a country that does not “tend its lambs and breeds wolves” instead.
Joseph Fähmel (YOH-sehf), Robert’s twenty-seven-year-old son, an architect. Although he is only a young and reluctant architect, he has been given the task of rebuilding the abbey of St. Anton. Even at the dedication ceremony, he is ignorant of his father’s role in its destruction. He is married to Marianne, a victim of her parents’ Nazism. She was reared by foster parents after the war. Heinrich Fähmel likes her and looks upon her as a worthy successor to Johanna, one who will ensure the continuity of the family. Joseph, just as his father and grandfather before him, does not seek wealth and power and hence is undecided about continuing in the family tradition of serving the region as a prominent architect.
At the novel’s outset, each of the major characters is living a timeless existence, protected from contemporary reality. Heinrich Faehmel, patriarch of the clan, is a product of his own timeless myth, sure of the future because the present was always the fulfillment of the past. He came to town at the turn of the century with definite plans to attain his professional and personal goals. Heinrich succeeded precisely according to plan and on his own schedule, living to this day seemingly untouched by economic depressions, four governments, and two wars.
Heinrich Faehmel remains above everyday developments with an ironic stance. Unlike her husband, Johanna Faehmel openly condemns political criminals and acts to correct injustices. She is especially sensitive to blind nationalism and public respectability; this behavior is symbolized by her condemnation of Hindenburg, the German general and politician whose career spanned several generations, from the “blood and iron” years of the German Empire to Adolf Hitler’s National Socialism in 1933, to which he capitulated. Johanna’s lingering refrain, which summarizes those brutal years for the entire family, is the question, “whywhywhy.”
Unable to cope with the increasing violence of the Nazi regime (which affected her own son Otto and caused the death of her daughter-in-law, Edith Schrella), Johanna has sought refuge in a mental hospital. There, in her “bewitched castle,” she has been insulated from time. Despite her lengthy self-isolation, she is lucid and prepared to leave the sanatorium for one day, to avenge the past and save the future through an extreme act of political activism. Although she fails, she epitomizes the family’s conscience. She has never capitulated to public weakness or opportunism, seeking instead a way to combat evil and promote goodness.
Living with unresolved memories of passive resistance to the inhumanity of the Nazi years, Robert has developed his own routine of self-protection. At his billiard table in the hotel, he, too, attempts to escape time. As a soldier, he had the unique opportunity to destroy some monuments of Nazi Germany (including his father’s abbey) and thereby gain some sense of justice. Today, however, in his civilian occupation, Robert can neither ignore present injustices nor attempt to demolish them as he had been permitted to do earlier. By adopting Hugo as his son, Robert is finally able to make a constructive contribution to social betterment, as opposed to the destructive act attempted by his mother.
Bernhard, Hans Joachim. Die Romane Heinrich Bölls, 1970.
Conard, Robert C. “Novels of Conquering the Past,” in Heinrich Böll, 1981.
Reid, James Henderson. “The Family Novels of the 1950’s,” in Heinrich Böll, 1973.
Ryan, Judith. “The Bewitched Castle: Heinrich Böll’s Billiards at Half-Past Nine,” in The Uncompleted Past, 1983.
Vogt, Jochen. “...nach funfundvierzig der Aufbau nach den alten Planen,” in Heinrich Böll, 1978.