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Arnon Grunberg: Figuranten (Silent Extras)

Grunberg’s second novel is similar in style to his first. This time it tells the story of a group of three people – Ewald, Michaël (known as Broccoli) and Elvira, an Argentinian. The story is narrated by Ewald Krieg (Krieg is German, but not Dutch, for war). He is looking back at his early adult life. He is now an estate agent in New York and, as he calls himself, a moneygrubber, hollow inside. He started out, however, wanting to be an actor. He went to the Maastricht theatre school to audition on his seventeenth birthday. The audition did not go well and he was marked as technically unfit. He tried again later at the Amsterdam Theatre School. It is there that he met Michaël Eckstein, known as Broccoli.

Broccoli is something of a character. He is outspoken but also appears somewhat eccentric. His parents live in the Swiss mountains and he has their house to himself. Not only does he have the house, he has a credit card, which his father pays, and a regular (and highly critical) cleaner. Ewald and Broccoli soon become fast friends. Broccoli has also got to know Elvira, a young woman who has come over from Buenos Aires which, she says, she is tired of, though she soon starts missing it. Unlike the two young men, Elvira has already film experience in Argentina. Broccoli is eager to promote her, particularly in a version of Macbeth. Meanwhile, the two young men sign on with an agent and he gets them an audition for an advert, which does not go well. However, they do get a role in film promoting a trade union.

Mrs Lopez, Elvira’s mother, arrives in Amsterdam and Broccoli offers to put her up in his parents’ house. However, things are complicated when she brings her boyfriend. Broccoli’s parents’ legal adviser and the cleaner both are critical and, eventually, Broccoli’s father turns up. He will come back with his wife (the two seem to bicker the whole time). He says the house looks like a camp site and is soon ready to cut Broccoli loose. Broccoli’s parents plan to go to Mexico, leaving Broccoli without support, though he is still proceeding with his somewhat bastardised version of Macbeth, starring Elvira as Lady Macbeth. Ewald continues to audition and gets a role in a children’s play, where he meets the mildly well-known actress Frederika and they start an odd relationship, with Ewald writing a monologue for Frederika. But Broccoli is determined that they need to go to Hollywood, he and Ewald as nude dancers, and Elvira as the next great femme fatale.

This book is about people struggling to get along in life with their plans and dreams and not doing terribly well at it. Broccoli and Ewald have their ambitions. They form a society of geniuses, with only the two of them as members. They want to be the next Marlon Brando. One of us has to become world-famous, Broccoli says. One of us has to make it. Ewald is less ambitious. He wants to be an actor and make it with Elvira. Even the acquaintances they make – Berk (né Bercowicz), Wolf, Mrs Lopez and others – just drift along. Indeed, most of the characters are merely silent extras in life.

Publishing history

First published in 1997 by Nijgh & Van Ditmar
First published in English by St. Martin’s Press in 2001
Translated by Sam Garrett