Memen­to Park: A Novel

  • Review
By – May 6, 2019

As the Amer­i­can-born child of Hun­gar­i­an Jew­ish immi­grants, C‑list actor Matt San­tos has always felt the pres­sure of his for­ward-think­ing par­ents’ hopes for suc­cess; this is under­scored by his father’s fre­quent injunc­tion to him to push­push­push.” But when Matt learns that he has inher­it­ed a (fic­tion­al) Hun­gar­i­an mod­ernist paint­ing, Ervin Kálmán’s 1925 Budapest Street Scene, he finds him­self com­pelled to look back­ward in order to con­front the trau­ma-rid­den fam­i­ly his­to­ry that his father — per­haps in an attempt to pro­tect his son — has kept from him.

Nar­rat­ed as a solil­o­quy that Matt nom­i­nal­ly (and some­what jok­ing­ly) address­es to the secu­ri­ty guard at the auc­tion house where Budapest Street Scene is about to be sold, Memen­to Park is rife with cul­tur­al ref­er­ences from Shake­speare to Matisse. Sarvas’s extrav­a­gant prose is at its best when used in descrip­tions of Kálmán’s paint­ings; his for­mal analy­ses of visu­al art would be at home on an exhib­it label.

As Matt uncov­ers Kálmán’s life sto­ry and attempts to learn the his­to­ry of the paint­ing that is appar­ent­ly his birthright, the gaps in his knowl­edge of his family’s past — and of the Judaism they prac­ticed — become more and more evi­dent by con­trast. His quest to uncov­er the truth about the art­work and its piv­otal role in his family’s fate becomes a quest for self-dis­cov­ery that has unan­tic­i­pat­ed effects on his career, his roman­tic rela­tion­ships, his rela­tion­ship with his father (a dif­fi­cult bond, the likes of which pop­u­late Michael Chabon’s fic­tion), and his reli­gious and cul­tur­al iden­ti­ty. Although only one night pass­es over the course of the nov­el, the sto­ry that Matt recounts dur­ing that night tra­vers­es time and loca­tion — tak­ing him from 1925 to 1944 to the present, and from Los Ange­les to New York to Budapest to Chica­go. Matt is forced to con­tend with not only the past itself, but also his own rela­tion­ship to it.

Miran­da Coop­er is a NYC-based writer, edi­tor, and lit­er­ary trans­la­tor. Her lit­er­ary crit­i­cism, essays, and trans­la­tions of Yid­dish fic­tion and poet­ry have appeared in a num­ber of pub­li­ca­tions includ­ing Jew­ish Cur­rents, Kirkus Reviews, the Los Ange­les Review, Pakn Treger, and more. In 2019, she was named an Emerg­ing Crit­ic by the Nation­al Book Crit­ics Cir­cle. She is also an edi­tor at In geveb: A Jour­nal of Yid­dish Stud­ies.

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