Of Billiards and Buildings

23 12 2010

I have this habit of asking the Germans I meet unpleasant questions. Of course I don’t ask right away. First come the neutral, tentative things that are said when meeting someone new. But there is always the looming monster of the holocaust just under the words. Always the troubling sense, running just under the surface of the conversation like the river Styx, that an entire nation stands behind each of us. It is a situation which evokes a certain amount of anxiety on both sides, and there is often a pressing need to clear the air.

What was it like growing up in a place where all the adults you knew were suspect of being Nazis? (That is, racist, fascist, mass murderers, or their silent accomplices.) That’s the question that interests me, and usually, after a moment’s thought, they tell me that their childhood was more or less normal. Then they launch into an explanation that their own personal family members weren’t Nazis. I suppose that at this point, it doesn’t matter if that’s actually true or not. And I can understand the desire to lie; who wants to tell a Jew that they’re the descendant of a Nazi?

But the place where it does matter, the place where the difficult, disturbing, unsavory truths about one’s time and place are supposed to rear their annoying heads is in literature. Realism, magical realism, surrealism, or dark, post-modern sicko humor; the main thing is that there be some truth on the premises.

Wait – don’t go ; I’m not going to do a survey of German post-war literature. I’m only going to talk about one book, by a really excellent German writer: Billiards at Half-Past Nine . It was written in 1962 Heinrich Boell. He’s not one of those obscure geniuses that die unrecognized. On the contrary, he’s a Nobel –prize winner (1972) “…for his writing which through its combination of a broad perspective on his time and a sensitive skill in characterization has contributed to a renewal of German literature”. So you’re entitled to approach the work with a certain amount of expectation.

Billiards at Half-Past Nine examines modern German history through the prism of the Faehmels, a respectable Cologne family. A talent for engineering and architectural design runs in their genes. If I tell you that the scaffold of the story is of a father who built a cathedral, and the son who helped to demolish it, you can understand how metaphor is busy at work here. In the course of the book, the family is destroyed, both physically and spiritually, by the events of, well, modern German history. The son, Robert, deals with this ruin of his family, his community, his values and his nation not by going to therapy, not by embracing anarchy an becoming a terrorist, not by taking to the streets and calling for a better society, but by adhering to a meticulously scheduled routine which includes playing a daily game of billiards at – you guessed it- half passed nine.

I don’t want to seem facetious here. Robert Faemel is struggling under the burden of a great many tragedies; his brother was a Nazi (though in Boell’s eyes, he too is one of their victims) , his mother went mad, his wife was killed by flying shrapnel, his daughter in law’s Nazi parents tried to kill her when she was a child, and his schoolmates, many of whom rise to respectable positions after the war include many ex-Nazis . All this, together with the fact that he himself was instrumental in destroying his father’s creation make for very troubling mental life. The idea that only the certainty of a strict daily routine, played out in activities of impeccable internal logic such as shooting pool, enable Robert to carry on suggest a very interesting premise. It’s all done beautifully, with great literary effects; changing point of view, vivid, lyric language, wonderfully poetic use of repetition, metaphor and symbolism, and striking interior monologues. The book certainly offers some insights on the German state of mind in the post war period, and yet, for me it was deeply flawed. Both the first time I read it, many years ago, and then again more recently, I was struck by what was, for me, inexcusably absent.

Which is the Jews. Or rather, some mention of the Jews – Jews who once lived in Cologne, for example. And what happened to them. There is but one brief sentence telling that Robert’s mother was committed to an institution following an incident where she tried to save join Jews who were being transported to a concentration camp, but that is really it. If a person who knew nothing about the holocaust were to read this book, they would not learn that the conflicted, suffering Germans ever had a problem with Jews at all. Which seems rather odd, given the generally accepted version of the ostracization , deportation and murder of six million Jews that indicates otherwise.
I was thinking about this when I wrote Interruption, a short story of mine that recently appeared in the online journal, Jewish Fiction (If you click on the link you’ll discover that I’m not really a blond cartoon character.) I have very little in common with Yakov Stiener, the protagonist. He’s a middle aged German Jew who left in time and went to Israel to join a kibbutz. What we do share is a frustrated impatience with the avoidance of the subject in post-war German literature.

I understand that this is a topic which, if you were a German living in the 1950s and 60s, you might want to avoid thinking too hard about. Because the conclusions you could reach might leave you little room for anything other than giving up your life and identity as a German. (I think positive proof of this suspicion can be found in the example of Sebald – another German writer, but one who saw fit to make his life in England, and was courageous and honest enough to confront the story of the devastation of the Jews head on; without self pity, without arguments about the suffering of Germans, without lame sociological explanations.) Nevertheless, time isn’t standing still, and the questions Germans need to think about these days are easier; less about genocidal tendencies, and more about how to understand the deeds of those older relatives who had the genocidal tendencies.
This summer I spent a few days in Berlin. If you enjoy an environment of metaphysical weirdness, you could do worse than take a trip there. The streets are filled with cheerful, chatty people. The parks and the river add a pretty touch to the urban sprawl. The buildings are a nice mix of stately old and bold-design new. Let the discerning, analytical part mind go to sleep and you could be in a place as innocuous as say, Canada.

But it doesn’t take much to pick up on the uncanny weight of time and place that hangs over the pleasantness. Pay attention and you become aware, as you hop between east and west and back again that these grassy parks, these public squares and these buildings, are in fact the ground zero of the 20th century. There are the little brass plates that appear in doorways, telling you the names of the Jews who once lived there and when they died, and other little brass plates set into streets and sidewalks showing exactly where the Berlin Wall stood not too long ago. There’s the bombed out Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church, purposefully left in its ruined state as a lesson and a warning. There are the white crosses on the fence along the river commemorating the unfortunates who were shot trying to swim to West Berlin. There’s the sculpture of Jewish children outside the Friedrichstrasse train station – one group who went to England on a Kindertransport, and the other who was sent to die. Everywhere you look there’s memorials; the memorial for the murdered gypsies, the memorial for the murdered homosexuals, and of course, the memorial for Europe’s murdered Jews.

At first it appears a strange use of good real estate. 2700 blocks of granite laid out over an area of 19,000 square meters. Whatever one makes of it, its unavoidable, dark presence in the middle of the city cannot be ignored. For people who are used to having everything explained at the click of keyboard, it is annoying, then mystifying, then disturbing that there is nothing explaining just what it is supposed to be. All the perplexed observer is left with is a collective recognition that words will fail.

And there, in the middle of Berlin, amongst the passing traffic and the urban rush of the day, one is struck with the sense of finding, finally, a measure of integrity. I imagine that were they there to see it, both Robert Faemel and Yakov Stiener would be comforted.

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