The Gendarme, by Mark T. Mustian (New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 2010)
Summary: "What would you do if the love of your life, and all your memories, were lost -- only to reappear, but with such shocking revelations that you wish you had never remembered?
"Emmett Conn is an old man, near the end of his life. A World War I veteran, he's been affected by memory loss since being injured during the war. To those around him, he's simply confused, fading in and out of senility. But what they don't know is that Emmett has been beset by memories, of events he and others have denied or purposefully forgotten.
"In Emmett's dreams he's a gendarme, escorting Armenians from Turkey. A young woman among them, Araxie, captivates and enthralls him. But then the trek ends, the war separates them. He is injured. Seven decades later, as his grasp on the boundaries between past and present begins to break down, Emmett sets out on a final journey, to find Araxie and beg her forgiveness."
Opening Line: "I awake in a whispering ambulance."
My Take: A good story, but didn't quite live up to the potential it suggested at first. I'm reminded of one oft-offered criticism of the movie Julie & Julia: that Meryl Streep's performance as Julia Child was so compelling, the contemporary storyline featuring Amy Adams as the underemployed blogger seemed lacking by comparison. So it is here. By itself, the account of young Turkish Ahmet's service as a gendarme, overseeing the Armenian deportation to Syria, and then deserting the army to follow Araxie, the young Armenian woman who's somehow captivated him, is serviceable enough, albeit not completely convincing. As is almost always true of war stories involving genocide, the Turkish treatment of the Armenians was unimaginably brutal; we see this hear in Ahmet's descriptions of his comrades' behavior, and we simply don't learn enough about who he was before joining the army to know why he'd be any different. Why, then, does he become so enchanted with Araxie that he believes himself in love with her? Even more implausibly, why does Araxie seem to return his affections to some degree, when he's attempted to rape her and murdered her adoptive father in cold blood? And how, exactly, does Ahmet Khan find himself returned to the battlefield, wounded at Gallipoli, and eventually swept off by an American nurse to his new life as Emmett Conn?
Surprisingly, it's the story of 92-year-old Emmett, set in Georgia in 1990, that's far more captivating. Having lost his wife Carol (the aforementioned American nurse) to Parkinson's disease some years earlier, Emmett is alone, though daughter Violet visits often. At the novel's outset, he learns from the irrepressibly positive Dr. Wan that he's suffering from a brain tumor. Violet, Dr. Wan, and nearly everyone else in Emmett's orbit is quick to blame the tumor for the seizures and visions Emmett's been having, but in fact, Emmett is merely remembering, even reliving, his past. Violet and the doctors just assume these dreams need to stop, but Emmett needs them somehow -- desperate to remember who he was and what he did during the war, however shameful it may be, and to find out what became of Araxie. Ultimately, he is confined to a state psychiatric hospital for monitoring, but refuses medication after but one night when he realizes it suppresses his dreams.
Again, the elderly Emmett's story is well-written and gives the reader a lot to chew on, but I was left feeling like I myself was confused and drifting in and out of the story line. Perhaps this was deliberate on Mustian's part, but it seemed more like there were just plain pieces left out of the puzzle. It's the author's first novel, so I'm inclined to think maybe he just hasn't hit his stride yet. Be that as it may, I still think the book was a bit overrated. The horrors of war have been done many times before in literature; making the perpetrator an old man who now looks back with some horror on what he's done is an interesting spin, but doesn't by itself overcome the novel's shortcomings. In short, liked the book well enough, but wasn't overwhelmed.
- Ithaca, New York
- MWF, now officially 42, loves long walks on the beach and laughing with friends ... oh, wait. By day, I'm a mid-level university administrator reluctant to be more specific on a public forum. Nights and weekends, though, I'm a homebody with strong nerdist leanings. I'm never happier than when I'm chatting around the fire, playing board games, cooking up some pasta, and/or road-tripping with my family and friends. I studied psychology and then labor economics in school, and I work in higher education. From time to time I get smug, obsessive, or just plain boring about some combination of these topics, especially when inequality, parenting, or consumer culture are involved. You have been warned.