Billiards At Half-Past Nine Part 13

"You probably aren't kidding yourself."

"What's become of people like Enders? Do you remember him-the redhead? He was nice, certainly wasn't a brute. What did people like him do during the war, and what are they doing today?"

"Perhaps you underestimate Enders; he wasn't merely nice, he-well, why not simply put it as Edith used to-he never tasted the Host of the Beast. Enders has become a priest. After the war he preached what to me were some unforgettable sermons. It would sound bad if I were to repeat his words, but when he said them they sounded good."

"What's he doing now?"

"They've stuck him in a village the trains don't even go to. And there he's preaching away over the heads of the peasants and the schoolchildren. They don't hate him, they simply don't understand him, they even honor him after their fashion, like a likable fool. Does he really tell them that all men are brothers? They know better, and secretly think: 'But isn't he a Communist?' Nothing else occurs to them-the list of stereotypes has dwindled, Schrella. No one would have had the idea of labeling your father a Communist. Not even Nettlinger was as stupid as that. Today they'd have no other category for your father. Enders would shepherd the lambs, but they only give him goats. He's an object of suspicion because he makes the Sermon on the Mount the subject of his sermons so often. Perhaps some day they'll discover it's an extraneous interpolation and have it struck out-we'll go and visit Enders, Schrella, and when we take the evening bus back to the railway station, we'll be taking more despair than comfort back. I'm closer to the moon than I am to that village-we'll give our compa.s.sion a workout and visit him, people ought to visit prisoners-but what made you mention Enders?"

"I was thinking about whom I'd like to see again. You forget that I had to disappear right from But I'm afraid of meeting people since I've seen Ferdi's sister."

"You've seen Ferdi's sister?"

"Yes, she runs the lemonade stall at the No. 11 terminus. Haven't you ever been there?"

"No, I'm afraid I might find Gruffel Street strange now."

"It was more alien to me than any other street in the world-don't go there, Robert. Are the Trischlers really dead?"

"Yes," said Robert, "Alois, too. They went down with the Anna Katharina. They hadn't been living at the harbor for some while. When the bridge was built they had to leave, but they didn't go for living in a city apartment. They needed water and ships. Alois was going to take them to friends in Holland, on the Anna Katharina. The boat was bombed; Alois tried to get his parents out of the cabin but it was too late-the water was already rushing in from above, and they never got out. It took me a long time to find any trace of them."

"Where did you hear that?"

"In The Anchor; I used to go there every day and question all the boatmen-until I found one who knew what had happened to the Anna Katharina."

Schrella drew the curtains together again, walked over to the table and stubbed out his cigarette. Robert followed him.

"I believe," he said, "it's time we went up to my parents-or would you rather not come to the party?"

"No," said Schrella, "I'll come with you, but shouldn't we wait for the boy? Tell me, what are people like Schweugel doing now?"

"Are you really interested?"

"Yes. Why do you ask if I'm really interested?"

"Did you really think about Enders and Schweugel in your hotel rooms and boarding houses?"

"Yes, and about Grewe and Holten-they were the only ones who didn't join in when the others attacked me on my way home. Nor did Drischka. What are they doing? Are they still alive?"

"Holten's dead, killed in the war," said Robert, "but Schweugel's still alive. He's a writer. And when he phones in the evening or rings the front door bell I have Ruth say I'm not at home. I find being with him unbearable and unproductive. I simply get bored with him. He's always talking about bourgeois and non-bourgeois, and I suppose he thinks he's the latter. What's the use of it? It just doesn't interest me. But he's several times asked after you."

"I see. And what's become of Grewe?"

"He's a party member, but don't ask me which party-it doesn't matter anyway. And Drischka is making 'Drischka's Auto-Lions,' a patented article that brings him in a lot of money. Don't you know what an Auto-Lion is? Stick around a few days and you'll find out. Anybody who thinks well of himself keeps one of Drischka's lions in the back of his car, on the rear window ledge. And you'll hardly find a person in this country who doesn't think pretty well of himself. This has been drummed into all of them. They brought a great deal back home from the war, memories of pain and sacrifice, but today they just plain think about themselves-didn't you see the people down there in the foyer? They were going to three different banquets: one banquet for the Left Opposition, one banquet for the Co-operative Welfare Society, and one banquet for the Right Opposition-but you'd have to be a genius to know who was going to which banquet."

"Yes," said Schrella, "I was sitting down there waiting for you while the first guests were coming in. I heard some talk about an Opposition. The first arrivals were the harmless kind, the good old Joe Blows of democracy, the business small fry who aren't so bad when you get to know them, as they say. They were talking about different makes of cars and weekend villas, and telling each other the French Riviera was beginning to be fashionable precisely because it's so overcrowded, and that in spite of all forecasts to the contrary it was becoming the fashion among intellectuals to go on package tours. Is that what they call inverse sn.o.bbery in this country, or dialectics? You'll have to enlighten me on such matters. An English sn.o.b would say to you: 'For ten cigarettes I'd sell you my granny.' But here they actually would sell you their grandma, and for five cigarettes at that, since they take even their sn.o.bbism seriously. Later on they got talking about schools; some were for the Humanistic ones, some against, and so on. Well, all right. I listened because I'd have very much liked to hear something about their real problems. Again and again they whispered to each other reverently the name of the star they were waiting for this evening. Kretz-have you heard the name before?"

"Kretz," said Robert, "in a manner of speaking, is an Opposition celebrity."

"I kept on hearing the word 'Opposition,' but it wasn't clear, from what they were saying, what Opposition they were talking about."

"If they were waiting for Kretz they must have belonged to the Left Opposition."

"If I got it right, this Kretz is what they call a 'white hope.' "

"Yes," said Robert, "they're expecting a lot from him."

"I saw him," said Schrella, "he came last. If he's their white hope, I'd like to know what their despair would be like. I think if ever I wanted to knock anybody off, he'd be the one. Are all of you blind? He's clever and cultured, of course, he can quote Herodotus in the original, and to these little businessmen who'll never get over their education tick, this has the ring of heavenly music. But Robert, I hope you'd never leave your daughter or son alone with Kretz for one instant. He's such a sn.o.b he's forgotten what s.e.x he belongs to. They're playing going to h.e.l.l in a hand bucket, Robert, but they're not playing it well. All you need is a little slow music and you'll have a third-cla.s.s funeral...."

Schrella was interrupted by the phone ringing, and he followed Robert to the corner as he picked up the receiver.

"Leonore?" said Robert, "I'm glad Father invited you. And please excuse me for what I said this morning, will you, Leonore? My father's expecting you in Room 212. A letter from Mr. Schrit? All the calculations on the X-5 doc.u.ments wrong? Yes, I'll look into it, I'll telephone Schrit. Anyway, thank you, Leonore. And I'll see you later."

Robert put down the receiver and turned back to Schrella. "I believe-" he said, but a very strange sound, not especially loud but short and brittle, interrupted him.

"Good G.o.d," said Schrella, "that was a shot!"

"Yes," said Robert, "that was a shot. I believe we ought to go upstairs now."

Hugo read: 'Declaration: claims waived by the undersigned: I hereby declare myself as having agreed that my son Hugo....' Underneath was an important-looking stamp, and signatures, but the inner voice he had held in such fear remained silent. Which voice had ordered him to cover his mother's nakedness when she came home after her expeditions, and lay on the bed muttering that fatal litany, whywhywhy. He had felt compa.s.sion and covered her nakedness, and brought her something to drink, and-at the risk of being a.s.saulted, beaten and called Holy Lamb-he had slipped into the shop and begged two cigarettes. Which voice ordered him to play canasta with a thing like that should never have been born. Warned him against going into the shepherd-priestess's room, and now inspired him to murmur the word to himself, "Father."

To lessen the fear which beset him, he spilled out other words after it, brother and sister, grandfather, grandmother and uncle, but those words did nothing to lessen his fear. He cast forth more words, dynamics and dynamite, billiards and correct, scars on the back, cognac and cigarettes, red-green, white-green, but the fear was not alleviated. Action perhaps might a.s.suage it: and he opened the window and looked down at the murmuring crowd. Was their murmur menacing or friendly? Fireworks were exploding against the deep blue sky. Claps of thunder from which giant flowers blossomed. Orange shafts of light, like searching fingers. Window down. He ran his hands over the violet uniform hanging on the coat hanger behind the door. He opened the door into the corridor, and sensed the excitement which had spread even up to his floor-someone in Room 211 had been seriously wounded! He heard a buzz of voices, steps here, steps there, steps going up, steps going down and again and again a police officer's penetrating voice saying: "Make way there, make way there!"

Make way! Away! Hugo was afraid, and he whispered the word, "Father." The manager had said, we'll miss you, do you have to go like this, so suddenly? And he hadn't said it out loud, only thought, yes, I have to, like this, suddenly, the time is ripe. And when Jochen had brought in the news of the attempted, the manager had forgotten his surprise at Hugo's giving notice. The manager had received Jochen's news not with horror but with delight, not shaking his head sadly but rubbing his hands, 'None of you has any idea what this means. This kind of sensation can send a hotel zooming. It's the only way to hit the headlines. Murder isn't suicide, Jochen, and political murder isn't just any murder. If he isn't dead yet, we must act as if he will be soon. You've no idea what it means; at least we must get a "Life in Grave Danger" into the headlines. I want all phone calls put straight through to my line, so I can see to it we don't foul up this chance. Good G.o.d, don't all look at me like a bunch of sadsacks! Keep cool. What I want you to do is put on a look of restrained commiseration, like someone in mourning, but comforted by the coming legacy. Okay, boys, get to work. There's going to be an avalanche of wired reservations. M., of all people; you've no idea what this means. I only hope we don't get a suicide to cross us. Phone the gentleman in Room 11 right away. As far as I'm concerned he can get angry and leave-G.o.dd.a.m.n, the fireworks ought to have waked him up. Okay, boys, man the guns.'

'Father,' thought Hugo, 'you've got to come and get me, they won't let me through to Room 212.' Flashbulbs were popping in the gray, shadowy stairwell. The elevator was in the shaft, a square of light, bringing up guests to Rooms 213a226, who, because of the police barricade, had to ride up to the third floor and walk down the service stairs. The elevator door as it opened released a loud buzz of voices, dark suits and bright dresses, bewildered faces and petulant lips forming the words, "It's too much, really, it's scandalous." Hugo pushed his door shut. Too late; she'd detected him, had begun to hurry down the corridor toward his room. He had just managed to turn the key on the inside when the handle shook violently.

"Open the door, Hugo, come on, open the door," she said.


"I order you to."

"I stopped working for this hotel a quarter of an hour ago, Madam."

"Are you leaving?"


"Where are you going?"

"To my father's."

"Open the door, Hugo, open the door, I won't hurt you and I won't frighten you any more. You can't leave. I know you haven't got a father, I know very well you haven't. I need you, Hugo. You're the one they're waiting for, Hugo, and you know it. You'll see the whole world and they'll lie at your feet in the best hotels. You won't need to say anything, you'll only need to be there. Your face, Hugo-come on, open the door, you can't leave."

Her words were interrupted by shakes of the door handle, punctuating her voice's pleading flow.

"... it's not for my sake, really, Hugo, forget all I've said and done. It was just despair made me do it-come now, Hugo, for their sake-they're waiting for you, you're our lamb...."

The door handle shook again.

"What do you want here?" the woman outside asked.

"I'm looking for my son."

"Hugo's your son?"

"Yes. Open the door, Hugo."

For the first time he forgot to say 'please,' thought Hugo. He turned the key and opened the door.

"Come on, son, we're leaving."

"Yes, Father, I'm coming."

"You have no other bags or things?"


"Come on."

Hugo picked up his suitcase and was glad his father's back hid her face. He could still hear her sobbing on his way down the service stairs.

"Now stop your sobbing, children," said the old man. "She'll be coming back to stay with us. She'd be very upset to know we were letting the party spoil. After all, he wasn't fatally wounded, and I hope that look of great wonder will never leave his face again-a brittle, short noise like that can work wonders. Will you young women please see to all the presents and flowers. Leonore, you take over the flowers, Ruth the greeting cards, Marianne the presents. Order is half of life-I wonder what's the other half? I can't help it, children, I can't be sad. It's a great day, it gave me back my wife and presented me with a son-may I call you that, Schrella? Edith's brother-I've even acquired a grandson, eh, Hugo? I'm still not quite sure about calling you grandson; it's true you're my son's son, but somehow not my grandson, and what voice or feeling orders me not to call you grandson I'm unable to explain.

"Sit down, the girls will make us all sandwiches; children, help yourselves from the gift baskets, and don't disturb Leonore's orderly files. Each of you had better sit on a year's pile. Schrella, you take pile A, it's the highest, and, Robert, allow me to offer you 1910, it's the next highest. You'd better pick out one for yourself, Joseph, 1912 isn't bad. That's right, settle down, all of you. Let's drink first to Mr. M., may the wonder never go from his face-the second toast to my wife, G.o.d bless her. Schrella, would you be kind enough to see who's knocking at the door?

"A certain Mr. Gretz come to pay his respects? I do hope he isn't lugging the wild boar on his back. No? Thank G.o.d for that. My dear Schrella, would you please tell him I'm busy? Or do you consider this the time and place, Robert, to receive a certain Mr. Gretz? No? Thank you, Schrella. It's the time and place to forgo false neighborly feelings. One word out of the way can cost a life-old Mrs. Gretz had said, 'It's a sin and a shame.' Lifting your hand can cost a life, and a misconstrued wink of the eye. Yes, please, Hugo, pour out the wine-I hope you won't be offended if we appreciate your hard-earned professional skills, and make good use of them here among the family.

"Good, yes, put the large bouquets in front of the bird's-eye view of St. Anthony's, and the smaller ones beside them on the left and right, on the shelf for the rolls of drawings-you can take those off and throw them away, they're only there for decoration, they're empty-or does anyone here still intend to use that precious paper? Maybe you, Joseph! Why are you sitting on such an uncomfortable seat, you've picked 1941, that was a meager year, boy. 1945 would have been better, it rained a.s.signments then, almost like 1909, except that I gave it up, the 'Sorry' part spoiled my desire for building. Ruth, stack the greeting card addresses on my drawing board; I'll have some thank-you notes printed and you must help me address them, then I'll get you something pretty at Hermine Horuschka's. How should they read? 'My most sincere thanks for your kind courtesy on the occasion of my eightieth birthday.' Perhaps I shall enclose an original drawing with each acknowledgment, what do you think, Joseph? A pelican or a serpent, a buffalo or a beast-Joseph, would you please go to the door this time, and see who else it is so late?

"Four of the staff at the Cafe Kroner? Bringing a present you think I shouldn't refuse? Right, then have them come in."

They came in, two waiters and the two girls from the cake counter, carrying it carefully through the door, the rectangular board, far longer than wide and covered with a snow-white tablecloth. It startled the old man; were they bringing in a corpse? Was that point there, tautening the white cloth like a post, the nose? They were carrying it carefully, as if the corpse were a precious one. Absolute silence reigned. Leonore's hands froze around a bouquet, Ruth stood holding a gold-rimmed greeting card, and Marianne did not put her empty hamper down.

"No, no," said the old man softly, "please don't put it on the floor; children, bring those two drawing trestles."

Hugo and Joseph brought two trestles from the corner and set them up in the middle of the studio, on the years 1936 to 1939. Silence again as the two waiters and the two girls set the board on the trestles, went each to one corner, grasped each the edge of the tablecloth and, when the eldest waiter uttered a short, sharp "Up!" they raised the cloth.

The old man flushed deeply, sprang toward the cake model, raised his fists, like a drummer gathering strength for a furious beat, and it seemed for an instant as if he would smash the sugared edifice to smithereens, but he let his fists sink slowly, till his hands hung loose at his sides. With a soft laugh, he bowed first to the two girls, then to the two waiters, straightened, took out his wallet and tipped each of the four with a bill. "Would you," he said, "kindly thank Mrs. Kroner for me most sincerely, and tell her that unfortunately important events oblige me to cancel my breakfast-important events, as of tomorrow, no more breakfasts."

He waited till the waiters and the girls had gone, then cried, "Come on, children, get me a big knife and a cake plate."

He cut off the spire of the Abbey first, and pa.s.sed the plate to Robert.


by Jessa Crispin.

As I was reading Billiards at Half-Past Nine, news was breaking about World War II. It happens over here in Germany still, nasty things surfacing like the 60-year-old unexploded artillery that is recovered by the metric tons every year. There were new revelations about the role of German women during the War. The previous icon-unknowing, unquestioning, uninvolved-was being replaced with something with sharper teeth. Women knew about the ma.s.s executions. They partic.i.p.ated, despite not being under direct orders to do so. Even that symbol of naivete and the stupidity of true love, Eva Braun, sat in on high level meetings and had a place in the planned post-war architecture.

It's an uncomfortable revelation in any culture. Men are supposed to be the warmongers. Women are supposed to be nurturers. Women are not supposed to pick up guns and shoot unarmed prisoners in the back of the head. Particularly in Germany, where the idea of the Mother is so distinct, and so deeply entrenched in the ideals of virtue, sacrifice, and honesty that even today working mothers run the risk of the pejorative label Rabenmutter (Raven Mother). The Aryan mother holding her Aryan children is still the image of life. The woman who refuses to sacrifice her entire being to her children is the death-bringer, the black-eyed carrion-eater, Raven.

1933 offers a wonderful scapegoat, an imaginary point of origin of every bad thing that happened in Germany. We could blame the propaganda posters from n.a.z.i Germany for drilling this image of the German mother watching over her brood into women's brains. But it's not true. Post World War I, the nation faced a scarily low birth rate, brought on by years of war and turmoil. The new government decided the best way to rectify this was to outlaw abortion and prohibit the sale or display of contraceptives in the Weimar const.i.tution of 1919. During a time of unimaginable scarcity and fear, women were forced into motherhood. They were forced to make do, and the pressure to repopulate the nation, to birth and raise a new generation of mothers and soldiers, was enormous. It was the most important thing a woman could possibly do: Be the Good Mother.

Good mothers in the real world-even ravens, who are fiercely protective of their young, yet, like most birds, will eat their own eggs if resources are scarce-know that sometimes the most motherly thing you can do is not to give birth. German women weren't just forced to be mothers, their option of being a good mother was taken from them.

We can go back further, if you like. To when the Grimm Brothers heard all the nasty fairy tales of mothers leading their children into the woods to die, and decided to add a "step-" to the maternal villain's role. Mothers could not possibly.... A mother's love is eternal and all-powerful.... Things get cleaned up in print, so easy to hit the backs.p.a.ce.

Then the terror of war descended and the mother's role was purified and sanctified even more. The motherly thing to do is to give up your sons to the war effort, have more children to replace those lost in France, in Budapest, in Kiev. Don't ask questions. Don't even think about what is going on around you. Because if you open your mouth, it's all over.

Resistance gets you killed. It gets your loved ones killed. Resistance is the luxury of those with no ties, no children, no dependents. But then where is the line? Where is the line between neutrality and resistance, resistance and survival? Where is the line between survival and partic.i.p.ation? Where is the line between partic.i.p.ation and evil?

The lines are different for the woman than for the man. The rules change when you are a mother. If you inform on a Jewish neighbor in order to raid their belongings, that is evil. If you do so because your son has no shoes or winter coat, that is survival. If you trade secrets for milk and eggs, it is because you have mouths to feed.

Unless partic.i.p.ation is simply partic.i.p.ation, no matter what justifications or boundaries or atonement you may use.

In Heinrich Boll's Faehmel family, Johanna, the mother, refuses to partic.i.p.ate. She loses her first son during WWI. He is seven, sick with fever, and too young to understand the patriotic songs and poems he recites, and the last word on his dying lips is "Hindenburg." Her next son Otto she loses to the true belief in the n.a.z.i party. He terrifies his family, bringing the horror into their home, transforming himself into a creature they can't recognize.

She's left with one son, Robert, but she is forced out of her role as mother entirely when she decides to be a human instead. She will not barter secrets for bread. She will not pick through the belongings of recently disappeared neighbors. She will not go to the black market and enrich those who are doing evil. When she attempts to board a train packed with Jews heading to the camps, she is taken to be insane and inst.i.tutionalized. Only an insane woman would watch her children suffer from hunger and alienation, rather than allowing them to sully themselves in the war effort. Only an insane woman would identify with the vermin being shipped out of view.

At the heart of Billiards at Half-Past Nine lies Joanna's manic confessions. She is biding her time in Denklingen, estranged from her family, but plotting her revenge. She needs to explain to her visiting son the choices she made.

"They brought me here because I let your children go hungry ... [D]on't lose patience and don't accept any favors. We aren't going to eat a crumb more than we get on the ration cards. Edith is agreeable to that. Eat what everybody eats, wear what everybody wears, read what everybody reads. Don't take the extra b.u.t.ter, the extra clothes, the extra poem which dishes up the Beast in a more elegant fashion. Their right hand is full of bribes, bribe money in a variety of coins. I didn't want to have your children take any favors, either, so they might have the taste of truth on their lips, but they took me away from them. It's called a sanatorium; you're allowed to be crazy here without being beaten."

Boll took the images of the German Mutter, easily confused with Virgin Mary iconography, and twisted and contorted them. From her insane asylum, she sits with perhaps the most sanity. The entire family must account for what they did with themselves during the war-except for her. Her actions and her motivations are the clearest of them all, and yet she runs through them again and again like the rosary while the others hide in billiards rooms, in cafes, behind their blueprints. She is the only character utterly dedicated to her decisions, who refused to compromise, and Boll leaves it open as to whether that makes her a good mother or a bad one.

After all, she could not save her children from becoming complicit. Her monologues come at the reader like dream-speak: heavily loaded with meaning, obscure, and dense. When she turns to the subject of Otto, the true believer, her bewilderment and pain leak out before she quickly switches to another train of thought. He is her true lost child, the changeling she does not recognize as her own, and now taken from her in battle before his soul could be restored.

Boll would return to the character of the German mother again and again in his books. The men in his novels, and in the world, are forced into action with a million compromises a day. Even Johanna's one surviving son Robert is drafted onto the battlefield. But the women are not allowed to act, reduced to the pa.s.sive role of Mother and yet still forced to navigate the boundaries of resistance and partic.i.p.ation. After the war they are not called to account for their decisions, leaving the torment internal. If there is no airing out, the accusations, judgments and punishments can only happen inside of your head.

Johanna is the dark heart of Billiards at Half-Past Nine. It is her grief-for her lost sons, for her dead brothers-that creates the book's momentum. She is the true Rabenmutter: clever ("I know there's one way to give the murderers the slip-be certified insane"), fierce ("I have to have revenge for the mouth of my seven-year-old son, Robert, don't you understand?... Are you now going to get me a gun?"), and watching from above ("I'm just living in inner emigration").

Boll's Johanna is the reminder that after the drama of the battles, it's the long recovery that is the important act. The battles don't end at the signing of the treaty. There are still things to resist, even years after the war.

-Jessa Crispin.

Berlin, October 1, 2010.

Receive SMS and Send Text Online for free >>

« Previous My Bookmarks Chapters Next»