Reviewed By Donna Meredith
The Gendarme, by Mark Mustian, is a brilliantly conceived and carefully crafted novel about the Armenian genocide that took place during and immediately after World War I.
The choice of a 92-year-old Turkish man living in Georgia as narrator is one of the author’s bold decisions. Emmett Conn has a brain tumor. His seizures spur dreams, which he soon realizes are memories of a past he’s forgotten, either because of head injuries received during the war or because he has repressed events too horrible to remember. This device allows the author to slowly spin out the story of Emmett’s past when he was known as Ahmet Kahn.
Mustian’s prose is clean and spare, salted with occasional poetic descriptions. Words “snap and volley” in an encampment. Emmett’s wife’s hair is “golden-white, like a swan’s feathers.” Morning breaks “raw like a blistering skin.” The style suits an old man bombarded by memories that engulf all his senses.
Since the death of his wife Carol, Emmett is a lonely man with few friends and connections. He has always been an outsider in America, dark-skinned with accented English. He feels most strongly connected to a grandson who also has dark skin and the prejudice and isolation that accompany it. Emmett’s relationship with his daughter Violet is strained, in part because he worked relentlessly during her youth. Violet also made life choices that put her at odds with her parents.
The novel alternates between 1990, as Emmett confronts his mortality in the presence of Violet and the absurdly cheery oncologist, and 1915 when Ahmet served as a Turkish gendarme. In the present day, Emmett has persistent memories of his wife, who nursed him back to health after the war. He returned the good deed by caring for her through years of debilitating illness. Not love exactly, but gratitude, duty, habit, children, and memories of years spent together bind them together. This portrait of Emmet’s family—imperfect as most families are—makes the dying man feel like someone we know. He could be our neighbor. Our father. Ourselves.
In his dreams, Emmett recalls a lost love from his youth, an Armenian refugee he was charged with escorting to Syria. Midway through the journey, only seven hundred remain of the two thousand who started the march. When they reach Aleppo, only a few have survived. The author unwinds Emmett’s memories slowly. By the time we confront the atrocities Ahmet committed, we already know him as fully human. This is Mustian’s achievement: to allow us to know Ahmet not just as a monster, but as someone not unlike ourselves.
Statistics in books or magazine articles about the destruction of more than a million Armenians barely makes most readers flinch. We see a number and not the faces of human beings. That distance is removed when the novel presents us with an Armenian woman begging Ahmet to carry her infant across a river. She strips off of her clothes and offers her body in a desperate effort to save her child’s life. Amidst the chaos of hundreds of refugees forced to cross the river, Ahmet rapes her in full public view, the infant lying beside them. The sound of a horse’s hoof crushing the infant’s skull and the strangled cries of the grieving mother are devastating. We are confronted with the reality of war’s degeneracy, unable to turn away from its violence though we want to.
Ahmet is serving this stint as a gendarme to gain entrance to the Ottoman army, but when they reach Aleppo he deserts. He risks everything to save a prisoner he has fallen in love with, a woman with one light eye and one dark, the captivating Araxie. He protects her from Mustafa, another gendarme who intends to rape her. After the death march, Mustafa gets his revenge by locating Ahmet and reporting him as a deserter. Soon Ahmet experiences the head injury that strips him of all memory and lands him in a hospital where he meets his future wife Carol.
Now at the end of his life, Emmett finds himself in a hospital again, a mental hospital, because the tumor causes violent eruptions when he confuses his dreams with present reality. He nearly strangles a caregiver.
In an imagined conversation Emmett asks Araxie’s descendant if it all really happened. She tells him, “Oh, it happened…Don’t let anyone tell you it didn’t. It was, it remains, genocide.”
In a final irony, Emmett dreams the rest of Araxie’s story, discovering she wasn’t even Armenian, but a Turkish orphan raised by Armenians. She tells Emmett, “…there is no blood test—nothing that I know of—to distinguish Armenians from Turks, Christians from Muslims, saints from sinners, the good from the bad. In the end, who really knows—maybe God?” We are left pondering once again how cultural differences can result in so much loss of humanity, Ahmet’s, no less than the million-plus Armenians who died.
Forgiveness and rebuilding of relationships begins with an apology, however belated. It’s a message the United States finally received concerning slavery, the internment of the Japanese, and the destruction of so many native Americans. As Emmett/Ahmet wonders how he can be forgiven if he hasn’t expressed regret, the novel’s message for modern Turkey is clear.
Mark T. Mustian is an author, attorney and city commissioner. He lives in Tallahassee, Florida, with his wife, three children and dog. He also serves as the current chair of the Lutheran Readers Project, a nationwide effort to connect readers and writers associated with the Lutheran faith. Mustian’s fiction has been published or is forthcoming in Stand Magazine, The Green Hills Literary Lantern, Opium Magazine, Parting Gifts and other publications.