SECOND THOUGHTS – THE HINDU
Magic of green baize
BY NAVTEJ SARNA
Heinrich Böll’s Billiards at Half Past Nine is an object lesson in the craft of writing.
When authors and editors put their heads together to decide on the name for a book, it is not an idle moment. The name, perhaps more than anything else, will define the book, attract the eye or strike a resonance, at least at first encounter.
My bookshelf is sprinkled with books bought because their names touched off a particular chord, brought back some shadowy time or promised a longer look at an evanescent haunting image. At least three of these books have been holding out a long overdue invitation to be read, an invitation that I seem to have resisted, ironically for the same reason that I bought them. Their names are so attractive and their appeal so romantic that any disappointment on their actually being read would be multiplied manifold.
Let me list out the names and let the readers judge for themselves: First, there is the hard covered, royal blue-jacketed None But the Lonely Heart by Richard Llewellyn; second is the hard covered, yellow-paged Time and Time Again by James Hilton and third is the slim Signet paperback, its pages edged in blood red, Billiards at Half-Past Nine by Heinrich Böll.
But this month, gathering courage, I picked up the last one. I recalled why I had bought it, in an unlikely second-hand shop in Berlin that had several neat shelves of books in English. It had brought back memories of a quarter of a century ago, when I had spent many evenings in a small district club, learning the mesmerising game of billiards from the dentist at the district hospital.
I watched, fascinated, as the good dentist, a chronic bachelor, smoothly stroked the white and red balls, forming true angles, impossible cannons, bold clean pots, kissing in-offs as the sun set over the western hills, leaving only a silver streak in the distance that could have been the Yamuna. When the low yellow light shone on the green baize, all the irrelevancies of life, the confusion, the question marks would fall aside and all truth, it seemed, could be translated in the way a particular ball was stroked. As I lost myself in Böll’s path-breaking novel that almost forgotten feeling was quickly reinforced.
The protagonist, Robert Faehmal, is closeted in the billiards room at the Prince Heinrich Hotel from 9.30 to 11.00 every morning except Sundays. Always alone, except for the bell-boy who listens to his stories, a glass of cognac and a carafe of water.
It is a sacred routine during which Faehmal tries to find some order in his existence in the predictably of the movement of the balls on the table, something that will make him forget the stupidities and meaninglessness of the war.
“Now gently, now hard he played the ball, seemingly at random, and each time, as it caromed off the other two, for him brought forth a new geometric pattern from the green void, making it a starry heaven. Cue ball kissing white ball over green felt, red ball over green felt, bringing tracks into being at once to be extinguished. Delicate clicks defined the rhythm of the figure formed, five times, six times, when the struck ball caromed off the cushion or the other balls. Only a few tones, light or dark, emerged from the monotone. And the swirl of lines was all angularly bound by geometric law and physics. Energy of the blow imparted to the ball by cue, plus a little friction, question of degree, the brain taking note of it, and behold, impulse was converted into momentary figures. No abiding forms, nothing lasting, all fleeting, force expended in a mere rolling of spheres.” The metaphysics of billiards can hardly be described better.
Billiards at Half Past Nine is an object lesson in the craft of writing. The tightly written 250-page novel is structured around one day, September 6, 1958. But through a brilliant control of the time perspective and fine characterisation, Böll packs into that day the experience of three generations of the Faehmal architects, along with their family and friends — in fact, the entire German experience from the Wilhelminian empire, through Weimar and Nazi Germany, to the West Germany of the 1950s. The symbol that connects the three generations is the St. Anthony Abbey: the grandfather built it as a prize-winning 29-year-old architect at the beginning of the 20th century, the father destroyed it as a reluctant 29-year-old demolition expert at the fag-end of the Second World War at the command of a Nazi General obsessed with clearing his “field of fire” and the grandson is involved with its rebuilding. In an emblematic last scene, the grandfather’s 80th birthday cake arrives in the shape of the abbey and he cuts off its spire only to hand it to his son. In this simple act there is the compromise of generations, the reconciliation with a troubled but very real past, the rebuilding from the rubble, a colossal shrugging off of the question that haunts the novel — whywhywhy.
Böll’s literary fireworks do not end there. The book begins when all that is worth telling in it has already happened. The stories are told in flashbacks and recollections. Lost times are brought back by following paths that go snaking into the undergrowth of the past with memory, which can be a curse or a blessing, as the only guiding light. Eleven of the characters delve into their memories, letting the events that they lived through, their recall of people and places seep through their consciousness as deeply felt first person narratives, often as fragmented, non-linear monologues.
The point of view changes with each chapter and with this rotation, every event is looked at from all sides and each character gets a chance to look at the others until gradually the layers form and the different dimensions develop into one seamless whole. The ultimate, brilliant effect is not unlike that of Robert Faehmal playing billiards “with only one ball, white over the green surface, a solitary star in the sky. Light, faint music without melody, painting without likeness. Hardly any colour. Mere formula.”