Matt Santos, the protagonist of Mark Sarvas’s compelling second novel, Memento Park, gives himself away on the book’s opening page. “I am aware of my presence in this room,” he says, “of the figure I must appear to cut, my fealty always to my unseen audience.” Matt is a reasonably successful B-list character actor. The room he occupies is in a high-end auction house where, come morning, a recently acquired masterpiece will be put on the block, and he does, in this instance, see his lone audience member, a security guard from a firm called Vigil.
Matt at first misreads the word on the uniform as “Virgil,” and during the long overnight hours the auction house has agreed to let him sit with the painting before its sale, he is ever conscious of his Virgil, addressing himself wordlessly to the stranger, narrating the saga of the painting and how he and it have come to be there. It’s a riveting story — and, in Sarvas’s able hands, artfully told — even if its narrator’s shortcomings, in the end, dull its resonance.
The painting Matt is spending the night with is Budapest Street Scene, by the fictional Jewish Hungarian artist Ervin Kalman, who committed suicide as the Nazis marched into Budapest in 1944. Matt, a second-generation Hungarian American, is told that the artwork has been traced to his family, that authorities believe his Jewish paternal grandfather traded it to a member of the fascist Arrow Cross in exchange for transit papers to London. He is encouraged to submit a claim for the painting, worth several million dollars, with the help of an attorney specializing in restitution.
Matt doesn’t know much beyond the bare outlines of his family’s wartime escape from the Nazis, and having been raised without religion, he doesn’t know much about Judaism, either. But he’s mystified as to why his father, Tibor, always “the schemer, the pursuer of angles,” refuses anything to do with the matter. He is less surprised that his father spurns Matt’s attempts to learn more about the past, as the two have a distant relationship punctuated by explosions of mutual resentment. To Matt’s dismay, Tibor is more at ease with Matt’s beautiful catalog model fiancée, Tracy, than with his own son.
The restitution process becomes complicated when a terminally ill Chicago rabbi submits a competing claim to Budapest Street Scene. Matt and his attorney, Rachel, attempt to uncover the truth of its provenance themselves, a quest that takes them on a momentous trip to Hungary. Rachel is an observant Jew, and Matt finds himself attracted to and awed by her piety. Speaking to her on the phone, he hears in her voice “that mysterious ancient music, notes of faith that I believed could restore me.” His fascination with Rachel leads him to regret his secular upbringing. Stepping inside a synagogue for the first time in decades, he marvels at the sanctuary’s “unexpected familiarity” and grieves for his “denied birthright” as a Jew. “All the years of study and devotion that marked the lives around me,” he laments, “whereas I had nothing to clutch but my blankness.”
That blankness can make Matt a frustrating protagonist. Sarvas, who founded the literary blog The Elegant Variation and whose debut novel, Harry, Revised, was published in 2008, reinforces, throughout the book, the first page’s characterization of Matt as an actor forever inhabiting an imaginary stage: Matt hopes Virgil sees him as an “intense, solitary brooder of unknowable depth.” Of a conversation with Tracy, he says, “I know how to deliver a line with consequence, and I did.” And elsewhere, “my life is merely a script.” Appropriately, Tracy chides him, “I don’t know what you believe in at all, half the time.”
As his reckoning with his heritage pierces his complacency with his great-on-paper Los Angeles life, Matt becomes sulky and self-pitying. He laments that everyone — the doomed Kalman, his devout lawyer, his compassionate fiancée, even his remote father — has a holy spark that “everyone but me, godless Matt Santos, carried God.” He aches for his “lost Jewish childhood,” but it’s not clear that a childhood of religious observance would have filled the hollowness at his core. Sarvas has created a gripping, twisty mystery that deftly tackles big questions — about the weight of history, the intricacies of identity, the often anguished love between parents and children — but its limited protagonist can only grasp at their answers.