Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 546

The motifs, symbols, and plot strands are drawn together through the various and isolated memories of several narrators. This montage of dialogue, monologue, and interior monologue is structurally complicated and often confusing for the reader; only gradually, as in the construction of a mosaic, do the disparate pieces provide a unified picture of the past fifty years. The focus here is on the individual response to opportunism and barbarism. Many succumbed to this evil as corrupt “buffaloes”; a few resisted and attempted to maintain their humanity as innocent “lambs.”

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The title emphasizes two major elements of the novel: the game of billiards, which represents an artificial order, and the concept of time. The clean geometric patterns traced by the moving billiard balls reflect the architects’ concern with a well-ordered life. Since no such order exists in the modern world—as exemplified by unexpected deaths and the political development of the “buffaloes” during the Nazi years—Robert hides behind a regimented schedule and the artificial beauty of the billiard table. All the while, he tries to fathom the moral events and challenges of the past. Time, however, effects change, as evidenced in the novel’s structure. The preoccupation with the past gradually leads to a confrontation in and with the present; members of three generations must learn to make their peace, however tentative, with life.

Much of the novel’s action transpires between the Prince Heinrich Hotel and St. Severin’s Cathedral, between representative buildings of the secular (political and military) and religious power. Still, the predominant symbol for the family’s fate remains St. Anthony’s Abbey. The original creation of the elder Faehmel, it is leveled at the war’s end by his son, Robert. The demolition is a symbolic act, and the ruins stand both as a memorial to all those innocents who perished (including Robert’s wife, Edith) and as a protest against the Church’s involvement with the corrupt political structure of the Nazis. Robert and his men also wanted to destroy St. Severin’s Cathedral, the revered institution of all those responsible and...

(The entire section contains 546 words.)

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