Munkácsy's Promenade in Parc Monceau (1882) - Image: WIkipedia

“A Promenade in Parc Munkácsy” by Alexander York (published by Austin Macauley)

Colourful characters twist and turn in crime caper

Debut novelist Alexander York has seemingly gone for filmic atmosphere rather than minor style issues such as crossing the “t”s and dotting the “i”s, and Hungarians can be along for the scenic ride as the action sets out from England and passes numerous Magyarország landmarks when Sir Edward Barrett takes a train to pursue his nefarious mission – to misappropriate a Munkácsy Mihály painting from Talanok Castle in Mukadiva, Ukraine.
30. July 2022 10:20

Why would the beknighted formerly working-class Englishman wish to embark on such a dicey escapade? Because his estranged wife, Ruby Rouge – whose allure he had been unable to resist when they met on a cross-Atlantic liner where he was a first-class passenger and she was a middle-aged chanteuse in the cabaret bar – will only give him a divorce if he nabs the painting for her.

And why does Ruby, real name Alison Jones, aged 50-plus, desire the Munkácsy painting “Promenade in Parc Monceau”, dated 1882? It’s because she believes that her ancestors from the 19th century are depicted. Both Munkácsy and her family each came from the Ukrainian Carpathians, she explains, and “Munkácsy travelled to Paris during his height of fame and painted my ancestors in the famous ’Promenade in Parc Monceau’ as a token of remembrance. So, I must have this. All this relates to grandma…grandma…grandma…”

The plot, then, revolves around the painting and its theft, with all the leading characters in the saga involved for entirely different reasons – Ruby wants possession of it, Sir Edward apprehends it, and another person – who actually had no part – takes the blame.

Obsessed by the artistic spirit of the painting, they all realise they have taken on a venture beyond their grasp. Sir Edward finally understands this as he loses his mind over a desire he must fulfil. Can he afford to abandon his societal position for what he really wants? Will the less fortunate Ruby surrender her love for the Munkácsy and move on with her life? Finally, after being left with no choice, good faith takes her to “Munkácsy territory” in Ukraine.

The once-privileged Percy Lloyd, a champagne socialist and small-time crook, discovers he is Europe’s most wanted man because of the affair, and needs a friend to bail him out. But there is one thing he must do before escaping the Munkácsy escapade, or so he hopes.

Writer York obviously has personal knowledge of his settings as the story swings from a Camford graduation ceremony to industrial Newcastle, then to art galleries in Paris and Budapest before rounding off in Talanok Castle with its Shakespearian armosphere, to where the painting eventually returns.

Like the Bard, Mr York and his publisher seem to have conspired to introduce a few new words to the English language, though perhaps not to such lasting effect. Some switches in verb tense also introduce a surprising effect. Still, the resulting text and its idiosyncratic plot deviations have a fascination all their own, and, as noted, Hungarian readers can visualise the action when Nyugati railway station, a Budapest riverside luxury hotel, the Hungarian National Gallery, Debrecen, Szolnok, Liszt Ferenc Airport and even the rather obscure Kőbánya Kispest roll past in cinematic style.

While “Promenade in Parc Monceau” returns to its spot on the castle wall, the prized illicit booty has changed lives, some for better, some for worse. Who will succeed beyond this particular promenade, York is asking us.

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