Imagine standing in front of an artwork for hours, slowly losing yourself among its detailed intricacies. The depicted individuals, walking with a purpose, carry with them the weight of their own histories and the colors of their idiosyncrasies. For Matt Santos, the protagonist of Mark Sarvas’ second novel, Memento Park, the mere possibility of lived experience sparks the most profound and intimate useof the imagination.
Matt is a successful actor with a steady stream of gigs, his fiancé, Tracy, is a former model and lawyer, and he lives in sunny Los Angeles. At first glance, he life is quasi-picture perfect. But when Rachel, another lawyer, calls him to let him know that he is the rightful heir to a painting that was allegedly looted by the Nazis in 1944 Budapest, his entire life gets thrown inside out. Today, the painting is worth millions of dollars. Of Hungarian descent, Matt is confused as to why his father—with whom he has a rather complicated relationship—wants nothing to do with it. The novel follows Matt and Rachel as they battle the courts to validate Matt’s entitlement to the artwork, his shifting and tenuous engagement with job-obsessed Tracy, and his journey of self-realization.
The book begins at the end of the story, with Matt looking back at all the events that led him to the point from which he can narrate his tale. He starts off as a reserved, egotistical actor with very little self-awareness. He jumps from job to job and shares little intimacy with his fiancé, except when she whispers her sexual desires in his ear to relieve tension. But as the book progresses, and as Matt increasingly understands his situation, his character screams with the bright light of his crippling depression.
“Everything starts with voice for me. The work is not alive and kicking until I know what it’s going to sound like,” says Sarvas. “I had that moment of seeing him at the end of things. That wasn’t a conscious choice, it was just where he began. I realized that I liked that mode of storytelling,” he continues. As a result of starting backwards, readers viscerally experience the introspection present in each one of Matt’s observations. “As he’s moving through the narrative, he’s gaining some emotional clarity over the events. You always feel better once you’ve talked about something,” says Sarvas. Matt is telling his story in the hopes of figuring out what it all means.
As he develops a close relationship with Rachel, Matt travels to Budapest to learn more about his family and his father, a toy car collector who refuses fatherly intimacy with his only son, except for select instances of cryptic affection. During his travels, he learns more about his promised painting, Ervin Kálmán’s Budapest Street Scene, which is loosely based on Kirchner’s Berlin Street Scene. The work played an integral part of a transaction that would give Matt’s grandparents safe passage out of Budapest. But his travels don’t just give him information about the painting. They also shed light on the Jewish tradition that for so long punctuated the lives of his ancestors.
“I can see the deep comfort people derive from faith. I’ve always a bit on the outside of that, so I wanted to mind that in the novel,” explains Sarvas. Matt is very similar to his creator. He’s an outsider to religion and relies on the small instances of spiritualism effected by those around him to develop a spiritual language of his own. Navigating complicated relationships with practicing Jews, rabbis, and those with the burning memory of the Holocaust, Matt must come to terms with his city of origin, the city his father abandoned as a young adult. “Matt’s emotional terrain and relationship with his father are largely drawn from my life,” Sarvas says. “I’ve always envied those who have faith, those who can live in this place of faith and belief.”
Just like Matt, Sarvas is also of Hungarian descent, and it’s clear that the author is living through Matt’s discovery of Hungarian culture to both come to terms with his heritage and understand his relationship to his father on a deeper level. “I hadn’t been to Hungary in about 10 years when I sat down to write Memento Park. I took a weeklong trip there to reconnect with it. I had the same feeling in Hungary that Matt had in the synagogue: I’m part of all of this, yet I don’t quite belong here,” confesses Sarvas.
“As I was writing the book, I became more inclined to cutting my father some slack in certain places because I had a different understanding. I really did come to see that, although I have all sorts of personal objections to the things that he did as a father, for his time and place and culture and what he knew, he did the best possible job that he could,” says Sarvas. It’s a beautiful thing to see a character and his author develop and grow so harmoniously in tandem with each other. As readers, we come to understand that the painting is not really the focal point of the book, nor is it the object that disturbs that narrative. The question here is: how do humans look to the past to understand their present? But more specifically, when do we begin to believe in history as an alive and dynamic text? It’s through palimpsestic overlays that our history is createdand Memento Park is a magnetic example of what happens when we peel off the layers of paint from a work of art.
Michael Valinsky is a writer from Paris and New York. His work has been published in i-D, Paper Magazine, BOMB, OUT, Hyperallergic, and the Los Angeles Review of Books, among others. He currently lives in Los Angeles.