To make it plain and simple, you can kiss my arse a hundred and twenty-seven times. – Heinrich Böll, Billiards At Half-Past Nine
Heinrich Böll’s novel Billiards At Half-Past Nine is a portrait of the horrors of mankind at its worst, and best. The rhythm of Böll’s prose expresses the full trauma of surviving the incomprehensible. Within three generations that hover around and in the aftermath of Germany’s two wars, the reflections of muted rage, and defeated hope by the men that are left are heart wrenching. The story is a tightly wound ball that tangles and crimps under the duress of the telling.
‘He’s harmless.’ ‘Of course,’ I said, ‘but you’ll see what harmless people are capable of.’
whywhywhy, is the sad refrain of one woman reduced to a mere lament. What’s the use? We live in a world, as the book tells us again and again, where you can be killed for raising your arm. And we still live in that world- we are simply, many of us, lucky enough to not live in that town or that country for the time being.
‘Haven’t you been around long enough to know that only a new religion can cure their boredom? And the more stupid it is, the better, Oh, go away, you’re too stupid.”
But from whence does this stupidity stem? What are we to think of one family that produces four children, two that die in their sweet youth, one that tries to avenge all of the sins committed against the lambs of the world, and another that turns his own family in? Whywhywhy?
Böll does not know the answer, but he does know that life…goes on. We carry on. The persistence of blind devotion, or blind disaffection is a present and very scary danger. I may have no real idea of the exact coordinates of the horror of humankind, but I certainly know the chill: of the unkind, of people who say they care but do not, of individual and mob cruelty, of the unloved – I know it well.
That human beings, such as Böll, are capable of such moving literature of the kind that seek to find the axis of these feelings and so clearly express the hollowness in the pit of our hearts that the horror produces, makes me at once proud but also ashamed, because – we never learn.
I’m afraid of houses you move into, then let yourself be convinced of the banal fact that life goes on and that you get used to anything in time.