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Silent Extras is an exuberant meditation on youth, waste, and the unstoppable power of comedy and farce. The novel is less a story of young people looking for meaning than it is a story of young people looking to undermine meaning, When the world makes no sense, all one can do is play along.
About the Author:
Arnon Grunberg is also author of the novel Blue Mondays, which went on to become a bestseller in Europe. Grunberg was born and raised in Amsterdam and currently lives in New York City. He contributes widely to magazines and newspapers, including The New York Times.
We'd been walking around Amsterdam all day, looking for the right place to take each other's picture. Something was always just a bit wrong. The light, or the background, or my nose was shiny.
`A shiny nose definitely doesn't make it,' Broccoli said. `The world isn't waiting for people with shiny noses.'
I'd discovered that by now. We'd been traipsing around for six hours. It was hot. Our lives depended on those photos. Lives depend on the strangest things: on photos, on money, on a traffic jam, a watch that's running slow.
`We have to find a drugstore,' Broccoli said. `We have to powder your nose.'
I trotted along behind him. He took big steps. His camera was dangling around his neck. I was eighteen and I wanted to be someone else, preferably in front of hundreds, thousands of people. In fact, most preferably in front of a rolling camera. Broccoli also wanted to be someone else in front of a rolling camera. After all, if no one can see that you've become someone else, what good is it? Now and then Broccoli threw his arm around my shoulder and said: `We're going to be stars of the silver screen, there's no two ways about it.'
Now Broccoli stopped suddenly and said: `You have a really strange head, you know that?'
`I know that,' I said.
He looked at me for a long time and said: `You have the strangest head I've ever seen.' And then: `It's important to always be aware of your own shortcomings.'
He wasbrilliant. I haven't met many brilliant people in my life, so I know what I'm talking about when I call him brilliant.
Broccoli went on: `You should buy a tape, one of those tailor's measuring tapes, and then you should wrap it around it your head. It's always handy to know the dimensions of your own head. I carry the dimensions of my head with me wherever I go.' And he actually pulled a little diary out of his pants pocket. It was empty, except for the first page where he'd written down the dimensions of his own head.
`Broccoli,' I said, `your nose is shiny too.'
He stopped in his tracks.
`Is it really?' he said.
`It really is.' I squinted a little to get a better look at his nose. I needed stronger lenses. `And there are little black dots on it too.'
He swore. `Then we have to powder my nose too. Otherwise this will all have been for nothing. Otherwise they'll put us in a drawer with all the other shiny noses.'
Broccoli had this idea that talent scouts had all kinds of pictures in drawers they used to sort people according to their physical shortcomings. He was running out in front of me again. I'd never seen him walk as much as he did that day. He usually moved around in taxis. When we finally found a drugstore, Broccoli stopped at the door. `Don't forget,' he said, `everyone has black dots on their nose. Otherwise the nose can't breathe, and it dies off.'
The young woman at the counter had blonde hair and rosy cheeks. It looked like she'd slapped a bunch of red powder on them.
In those days I was highly inflammable. Like gasoline. I struggled against inflammability with every means at my disposal. Broccoli said I should do that. He also said you should always jerk off before trying to seduce a woman. Otherwise you were too nervous. The world wasn't waiting for the nervous, Broccoli said. People had enough trouble handling their own nerves. He also wanted to write a book about that. And then dedicate it to me.
`We need some powder,' Broccoli said.
`Excuse me?' the girl asked.
`It's for our noses,' Broccoli said. `That's fairly obvious, I take it.' He wiped the sweat from his forehead with a handkerchief. Nothing seemed to embarrass Broccoli.
`It's for a photo session,' I heard him say.
`Oh, like that,' the girl said.
I stared at the floor, then I peered off at the section with the rheumatic bandages. Those bandages you stick on your back and the rheumatism goes away. I could see the girl holding her face right up to Broccoli's nose. I felt myself flaming up again, so I concentrated on the rheumatic bandages. Back then I used to get spontaneous erections all the time, especially in cafés. I was afraid people would see it, so I wouldn't get up. I'd just sit there until it went away. I even started wearing these huge pleated trousers. I thought people were looking at my crotch all the time. We had a rabbi who used to say that God saw everything, including your crotch, so you had to be sure to wash yourself well. And also arrange to be circumcised, if you weren't already. I'd rather have my crotch looked at by God than by people on the street. Broccoli said my pleated trousers made me look like an old Dutch farmer. So I started wearing normal pants again.
`Come here,' Broccoli shouted, `she wants to look at you too.'
Before I could even get to the counter, she stuck her face up so close to my nose that I could see the wrinkles around her lips. I held my breath, just to be safe.
`You two don't have the same skin tone,' she said. `I'll have to give you two different kinds of powder.'
`That's OK,' Broccoli said.
Before we left, she said she'd remember our visit for a long time, and Broccoli replied: `I won't forget you either.'
Broccoli wanted to powder my nose right out in front of the store.
`Do we have to do that here?' I asked. `Everyone's looking at us. I can't concentrate like this.'
`It's now or never,' he said. He took my face in his hands and smeared the brush all over my nose. I pinched my eyes shut to keep from seeing how people were staring at us.
`Now you.' He handed me the brush and opened the other box of powder. A gust of wind came along and blew half the powder into my mouth and on to my glasses, but Broccoli didn't care. He was obsessed. I saw more and more people stopping and pointing at us. The girl from the drugstore came outside with one of her customers, they were looking at us too.
`We're drawing a crowd,' I whispered. `Let's go to the park.' Broccoli wasn't wearing his glasses, so he couldn't see much. Without glasses he couldn't see a thing.
`When you get to Hollywood,' he shouted, `crowds will gather all the time when you go out on the street. All trying to get an autograph. If you can't handle a little crowd, you'll never make it in Hollywood.'
`But I'm not a make-up artist,' I complained.
`Powder my nose,' Broccoli barked, `or I'll break your glasses, pizza face.'
Broccoli meant well by it. That's why I was willing to take that that kind of thing from him. It was actually pretty funny when he said that. He wanted to make people aware of their shortcomings. Not everyone, of course, but I was his friend. I powdered his nose, just like he'd powdered mine.
We knew that, in this world, the man inside was manifestly reflected on the outside, and we were willing to submit to the rules this world had drawn up. Because Hollywood was calling us. Maybe it was calling Broccoli a little louder, but I was being called by Broccoli, which boiled down to the same thing.
When I was finished, Broccoli said: `Now we won't end up in the drawer with the shiny noses.'
At a news-stand he bought a can of beer. I had the feeling that all that powder was making the sweat stick to my nose and form crusts, but I didn't dare to say anything about it.
Broccoli drank the way other people smoke. More from nerves than because he was thirsty or wanted to get drunk. In fact, he never got drunk. He just fell asleep.
`Not so fast, Broccoli,' I shouted. He stopped at a traffic light. The foam was stuck to his lips, and his face was covered with powder.
We'd heard Hollywood calling, the way other people heard the call of the monastery, or of their adulterous neighbour, or of big money or God. In the still of the evening, the call meant for us was especially clear. It drove us completely crazy.
Sometimes in the middle of the night Broccoli would dial a telephone number in Hollywood. Then he'd lie down on the bed and look at his stomach. He'd say: `If I ever get a beer belly, it'll be the best-looking beer belly in the world.'
How he could get up at eight every morning and feel like a beer, was one of the things I never understood about Broccoli, and probably never will.
`Here,' Broccoli said, `the light's good here.' We'd stopped in front of a house on the Realengracht. I couldn't see anything special about the light. Maybe he just liked the house, or maybe he had some business to arrange with the people who lived there.
`For the two of us, there are twelve more actors waiting in line,' he said. `A hundred, make that a thousand.' Then he grabbed my ear, pulled me up close and whispered: `All they do is look at the pictures, so give it everything you've got.'
It was hot, but Broccoli still had on a raincoat. He was four years older than me. At least that's what he said. He'd also said that, at the age of six, his entire family had pronounced him a wunderkind. It was in the living room, he said, he was playing his violin and suddenly the whole family started shouting: `He's a wunderkind, he's a wunderkind.' Someone even fainted. An aunt of his cried: `Oh my God, another wunderkind in the family!'
From then on his parents made him play the violin up on the rooftop patio. The neighbouring kids threw tennis balls at him and rotten apples from the tree in their garden. But his mother kept shouting out the window: `He's a wunderkind, he's a wunderkind.'
After he'd told me all this, he took a few steps back and said: `A wunderkind appears on an average of once every hundred years. What you see before you is a very rare phenomenon. Never forget that.'
He pulled one the handkerchiefs he used to cut from old dishtowels out of his pocket, and wiped the sweat from his face. He'd tried to get me to cut handkerchiefs from old dishtowels too. He said it was a good way to save money, but Broccoli wasn't the kind who saved money. If you ask me, he cut handkerchiefs from old dishtowels because he was too lazy to buy handkerchiefs. My family had plenty of handkerchiefs; to be precise, we had enough handkerchiefs to supply an orphanage. I told Broccoli that. Besides, my mother would have killed me if I'd started cutting handkerchiefs out of her dishtowels.
`Do I look right for a western?' Broccoli asked. That was the genre he wanted to specialise in. His favourite line was: `I kill for money. But you are my friend, so I kill you for nothing.'
I didn't think he looked like he was cut out for a western, more like someone who'd audition for a role in Death of a Salesman. But I didn't tell him that, of course. I shot all twelve exposures, one after the other, without paying any attention to the light.
When it was his turn, he said: `Brush that hair away, otherwise they won't be able to see your face.' He danced around in front of me with the camera. I felt like I had a puddle of powder stuck to my nose. But Broccoli said I looked like a little rat that was about to bite someone's balls off.
Right after he said that, he threw his arm around my shoulders and said: `Maybe they're looking for a little rat. I bet they are; little rats are always in demand.'
He knew a cheap photo shop on the Munt where we could have the photos developed.
Copyright © 2001 Jonathan Stone. All rights reserved.
|A New Kind of Snack||38|
|La Gazzetta dello Sport||51|
|The FNV Show||68|
|Gare du Nord||74|
|The Butcher's Wife||82|
|The Adolf Hitler Café||94|
|I Want to Feel You in Me||123|
|Onion Soup and Churchill Cigars||129|
|A Lovely Shed||146|
|Point at Us Behind Our Backs||151|
|Enjoy Such a Ripe Old Age||155|
|Don't Bother With the Shoes||158|
|One Last Dance, Sugar||165|
|Can You Make My Father Happy||173|
|A Bank Account in Zurich||184|
|The Cutlery's Going With||194|
|The Lorelei Express||206|
|A Letter from Mrs Meerschwam||234|
|Galani, the Fur King||240|
|Jews for Jesus||273|
|Tel Aviv, Rechov Ha'avoda||304|
|My Wife Will Smell it Anyway||308|
|It Will Be In the Papers||323|
|It's Raining Men, Hallelujah||331|
|We've Got To Get Out of Here||338|
|The Eckstein Company||343|