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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Silent Extras

Arnon Grunberg

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To purchase Silent Extras

Title: Silent Extras
Author: Arnon Grunberg
Genre: Novel
Written: 1997 (Eng. 2000)
Length: 363 pages
Original in: Dutch
Availability: Silent Extras - US
Silent Extras - UK
Silent Extras - Canada
Silent Extras - India
Statisten - Deutschland
Comparse - Italia
Figurantes - España
  • Dutch title: Figuranten
  • Translated by Sam Garrett

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Our Assessment:

A- : enjoyable meandering tale of trying to find one's place in the world

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The New Yorker . 7/5/2001 .
Die Welt . 15/5/1999 Karen Fuchs

  From the Reviews:
  • "(T)heir careering course from Amsterdam to America becomes a moving attempt "to live genuinely under unreal circumstances."" - The New Yorker

  • "Grünberg schlägt aus dieser Trostlosigkeit Funken. Seine Protagonisten sind Loser, die Spaß machen und Mitgefühl erregen. Ihre Abgeklärtheit verwehrt ihnen die Hingabe an den Moment. Liebe und Freundschaft sind sie zweifelhafte und doch ersehnte Werte. Grünberg hält genau den richtigen Ton zwischen Lakonie und verletzlicher Selbsterkenntnis. Mit Ewald leiden, lästern und träumen wir." - Karen Fuchs, Die Welt

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The narrator of Silent Extras, Ewald Stanislas Krieg, begins his story by describing himself as "the moneygrubber, dealer in tenements". He's sunk as low as one can go -- he's become a real estate agent in New York -- but at least he is something, he's found an identity for himself, a path in life. And the bulk of the novel describes how he got there.
       On his seventeenth birthday Ewald auditioned for the Maastricht drama school, failing miserably. He tries again, in Amsterdam, but they don't want him either -- but there he meets another failed applicant, a young man who calls himself Broccoli. His real name is Michaël Eckstein, and, unlike Ewald, he has all sorts of grand ambitions and plans. He also has his father's credit cards; his parents are abroad, and meanwhile Broccoli has both the run of the family house as well as the bank accounts, and so he can be a flâneur in style.
       When they hook up with Elvira the trio of misfits is complete. Older than them, she comes from Argentina -- and she's already been in a movie. Ewald isn't quite sure what she's doing here:

     I wondered why she'd ever left Buenos Aires, and what she was looking for in Amsterdam, of all places.
       But Amsterdam is as good a place as any for youths in their late teens and twenties, full of ambition but without any direction. "One of us has to become world-famous" Broccoli demands. "One of us has to make it", he says, as if anything less won't do. But they have no clear idea of what it means or how to achieve it. Being actors seems the obvious route, appearing on stage or on screen, but they have little commitment to (or understanding) of the craft. Ewald gets a few acting gigs, but after a few jobs his agent won't even open the door to him any more. Broccoli plans an elaborate production of Lady Macbeth-monologues for Elvira, but it winds up just being a pathetic disaster (indeed, even their failures are pathetic, rather than grand).
       They remain bit players, 'silent extras'. What opportunities they do get suggest, however, that they aren't missing much: at one serious job Ewald gets the production meeting is devoted entirely to whether lunch allowances should be paid in kind or cash, and even Ewald has to acknowledge that the piece he's in is incomprehensible. It's all show, no substance, and bewildering to the audience (schoolkids forced to go by their teachers). In other words, it's a lot like Ewald, Broccoli, and Elvira's life.
       Ewald doesn't have much initiative. He's happy to tag along with unpredictable Broccoli, and play side-kick, whether in Broccoli's 'Association of Geniuses' (another desperate attempt at self-validation) or when the Eckstein family returns as the money runs out. When a famous actress gives Ewald some attention he's like a puppy dog, trying to please. She wants him to write a monologue for her, but he winds up trying harder to find a proper studio to rent where he could invite her over: it's not that appearances count more than substance, but appearances are all that he's capable of.
       No wonder that ultimately Broccoli's big plan is 'Operation Brando': "We've decided to look like Marlon Brando" is how Ewald explains it. And Broccoli insists:
It has absolute priority. If we succeed, we'll be heroes. If not, we will know the meaning of humility for the rest of our lives.
       Nothing comes of it, of course -- but there's no question of Broccoli ever coming to understand what humility might mean. Ewald, on the other hand, has always been all footstep-following humility -- and even admits after a while:
I was a young man who planned to start looking like Marlon Brando, but who so far had about as much in common with Marlon Brando as as he did with a watermelon.
       When the disastrous Lady Macbeth production is put on Ewald finds:
In fact, it wasn't really a performance at all. It was more like a religious rite.
       This is part of Broccoli's failure: all he wants is grandeur, and he fails completely to understand the means to achieve it. He sees only what the performance must come across as being, not the nitty-gritty that actually might permit it to be a success. Similarly, he proclaims himself a genius without offering any proof that he might have what it takes: he thinks it's enough to form an Association of Geniuses to get (what he thinks is) the deserved recognition.
       Silent Extras trots and meanders along in youthfully-aimless fashion: there are projects and ambitions, most as quickly dropped as they are embraced, and there's little progress:
     'What would we do in Venice ?' Broccoli asked.
     'The same thing we do here,' I said.
     'Well then, that's OK,' Elvira said.
     And it was, because everywhere we went we did the same thing we did in Amsterdam. And even when we were no longer together, I went on doing the same thing. It was a way of life that suited me just fine. Wandering around a city, in no hurry and with no particular goal, like a travelling salesman with nothing to sell.
       Ewald does give that up -- he becomes a real estate agent, after all -- but for this period that's how they live. Indeed, Silent Extras is similar to Gilbert Adair's The Holy Innocents (re-written and filmed as The Dreamers), except that Adair's youths' passion for film gave them at least some focus: Broccoli and his crew want fame, but aren't particularly enthusiastic about acting or actors.
       The appearance of Broccoli's parents -- on the run from the law, and quickly gathering up some of their possessions -- shakes things up, but ultimately it just means Broccoli has less money to throw around. The antics of the Ecksteins, and especially their accountant, the comic-tragic Berk (who is crushed when he can't further abbreviate his name, to simply 'B.') add yet another absurdist layer, but Ewald is unflappable, not quite sure how to react, but willing to go along for the ride (though it goes so far that even he thinks maybe shouldn't be a witness to this craziness).
       The novel proceeds in some fashion: there is progress, of sorts -- and by beginning with a little prologue set in the present (years after the events that form th bulk of the novel), and occasionally letting drop a sentence to say that he now sees, or would do, some things differently, Ewald makes clear this is a book about a (lost) past. It's also a book about lost illusions, and part of its great success is in how Ewald doesn't come to anything with any illusions: he follows Broccoli -- who very definitely lives in a dream-world full of grandest ambitions -- but he's hardly shaken by his failures. Ewald is a come-what-may kind of guy: he's not really aiming for the stars, but he's willing to have a look around if Broccoli and Elvira drag him there -- though he recognizes that, despite all their grand words and even their final escape to America, they're firmly rooted in place, almost incapable of really doing anything. Indeed, looking back Ewald sees that:
     When I'm in restaurants these days, I often think of Broccoli and Elvira. I don't believe in destiny, but if we'd had a destiny it would have been to sit in restaurants.
       That's ultimately all it all amounted to.
       What Grunberg imagines for Ewald and his friends is also very enjoyably creative and bizarre. Some parts drag a bit -- Broccoli's dad can become a tiresome figure -- but on the whole the novel moves very well, and, surprisingly, the aimlessness doesn't become wearing, even though it is a longish book.
       An enjoyable and surprising book about youth and ambition. Well worthwhile.

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Silent Extras: Reviews: Arnon Grunberg: Other books by Arnon Grunberg under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Dutch literature at the complete review

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About the Author:

       Dutch author Arnon Grunberg was born in 1971 and has won numerous literary prizes.

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