After the fall of communism in Hungary, the new government was faced with a question: What to do with all the statues? Monuments to Marx, Lenin and other communist saints and heroes filled the country, as they did every place Soviet communism had ruled. The Hungarian solution was ingenious: The city of Budapest opened Memento Park, an open-air museum where the statues were deposited. Rather than erasing the past, the park tried to cordon it off, to create a space where a difficult history could be encountered and mastered.
Memento Park is the setting for a key scene late in Mark Sarvas’s new novel, but it is the larger resonance of the site that makes it an appropriate inspiration for the title of the book. For the confrontation with the past — personal, familial, national and religious — is Sarvas’s central theme.
The story begins as Matt Santos, the middle-aged, moderately successful actor who is Sarvas’s protagonist (and, the name suggests, perhaps alter ego as well), sees the past come crashing into his well-arranged life in the form of a haunted work of art. In his case, this is not a communist statue, but a pre-World War II painting called “Budapest Street Scene,” by a (fictional) Hungarian artist named Ervin Kálmán.
One day, Matt receives a call in his Los Angeles home from the Australian consulate, which informs him that the painting used to belong to his Jewish family in Budapest before World War II. Evidently, in 1944, just before the German occupation of Hungary, Matt’s grandfather traded the painting to a neighbor for exit passes, which he used to save his own life and that of his young son, Matt’s father. Now “Budapest Street Scene” has resurfaced, and it rightfully belongs to him. And, by the way, it is worth millions of dollars.
Clearly, Matt has inherited not just a windfall, but a whole history on a piece of canvas. What does it want from him, and what does he owe it? These are the questions he struggles to answer in the course of “Memento Park,” which takes the form of a long internal monologue with flashbacks, conducted by Matt the night before the painting goes up for auction.
While Sarvas’s book is full of cunningly prepared surprises, it is also a fundamentally thoughtful and meditative story, whose real plot is Matt’s achievement of a kind of perspective on his past. “It’s possible to spend an entire lifetime looking at something, and even then, to fail to behold it in any meaningful way,” he reflects at the beginning of the book, and the hidden purpose of the painting is to teach him to see clearly — not just art, but life itself.
In a sense, Matt is the last person who ought to be forced into such a reckoning. His role in life is not to see, but to be seen: He is a Hollywood actor, born into a time and place that loves actors more than anything else. (“I was born the year America elected president a B-movie actor who promised them ‘a shining city on the hill,’ ” he wryly notes.) In many ways, he is living the California dream, complete with a girlfriend, Tracy, who is a blond swimsuit model. If he can’t simply disappear into the timeless present of the screen, it is partly because he is Jewish, a legacy that comes to seem increasingly important to him.
Even more, it is because he is the son of his father, who emerges in all his stubborn, withholding, frightening strength as the book’s most magnetic character. “My father taught me nothing,” Matt insists. “There is no judgment implied in this, merely observation, though I know how it sounds.” Perhaps this refusal to teach was deliberate, since his father experienced all the terrible history that Matt was spared. Born in Budapest, he escaped the Nazis and fled the communists, coming to America to start a new life. But the scars of the old life lingered, in his silences, rigidities and bursts of anger. A fanatical collector of model cars, he seemed to care more about his toys than his family.
The sudden advent of “Budapest Street Scene” forces Matt to reconnect with his father in ways that prove painfully enlightening. At the same time, it brings him in contact with Rachel, the lawyer who is helping him reclaim the painting, and who comes to represent for Matt the connected, contented Jewish life he never had the chance to experience. Who will win out in the struggle for his allegiance: Rachel, a figure of fantasy, or Tracy, the actual woman he has known and loved? Will he ever find out the true story of “Budapest Street Scene” and whether he deserves to take ownership of it? These are the questions that drive the narrative, and Sarvas keeps them expertly on the boil.
But in the end, it is Mark’s father — that maddening embodiment of an inaccessible past — who dominates his life, and his story. While “Memento Park” is very much a book about the Hungarian Jewish experience, the dynamics it portrays are common to any immigrant family, where history is the thing everyone is trying to forget, even though it is present in every word.
Adam Kirsch is the author most recently of “Rocket and Lightship: Essays on Literature and Ideas.”
By Mark Sarvas
Farrar Straus Giroux. 288 pp. $26