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.”
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 respectable people who had been capable of so much hatred and murder.
The Abbey’s symbolism is problematic. As a monument to the family’s private success and to traditional German decency, it flourishes. During the war, however, Robert perceives the edifice as a reminder of the Church’s capitulation to immorality and inhumanity, and he consequently levels it. With such a decisive end to this symbolic structure, Robert could hope for new beginnings, both politically and (for the Church itself) spiritually. Even before the novel begins, however, the decision has been made to rebuild the Abbey—on the original site according to the original plans, and with help from the youngest generation of Faehmels. Such circumstances imply a restoration of the past and do not bode well for fresh, thoughtful beginnings. At the novel’s conclusion, the family cuts the cake (in the shape of the Abbey) and shares in the Abbey’s “digestion,” emphasizing a resolution to the family’s differences. Nevertheless, this private act will in no way hinder the actual reconstruction of the public structure and will therefore not change the continued corruption of this representative institution of the Church and thus of society.