Saturday, November 19, 2011

The Gendarme by Mark T. Mustian

Genre: Fiction, historical flavor
Publisher, Year: Amy Einhorn/Putnam, 2010
Other Works: Debut
Flags: Adult themes, explicit references
Rating: A-, or Good w/ Minor Problems
Premise: An old man is troubled by disturbing dreams--memories of a past he has never known as a gendarme, forcing Armenians out of Turkey. As the dreams continue, he is given a full picture of a past life, including a beautiful Armenian woman, who he loved. As he comes to the end of what he remembers, he is left with many questions. Questions that haunt him.

I found The Gendarme equal parts interesting and disturbing. I knew nothing about the Armenian genocide, and although I was glad to be enlightened to those events, it was definitely a tough read. But, this book left such a lasting impression that I’m glad I kept enduring.

Emmett Conn fought in WWI and was injured. Through some sort of twist of fate, he ends up recovering and moving to the United States, and he gets married and has children—a normal, unremarkable life by many. However, in his old age, as he’s becoming ill, he is beset by strange dreams where he’s remembering a past life. At first, he can’t understand how the cruel gendarme from his dream, ushering suffering Armenians out of Turkey, could be him. But the dreams begin to paint a picture that he knows must be true. And at the center of these memories lies a beautiful woman.

I thought this was a creative plot line, and although not a page turner, it kept my interest as I was shifted back and forth between present and past. With the amnesia, we were able to get inside a war criminal’s head without the inherent evil and hate. This fact leaves the reader with a difficult conundrum: what to do with Emmett? Do we hate him, or can we forgive him? By all accounts, Emmett led an ordinary life after his accident, even a benevolent one, considering that he faithfully took care of his ailing wife for so long. But, after he comes to know of his past, and us too, it’s hard to look at him in the same way. And yet, he’s still the same person. That dichotomy is what makes him such an intriguing character. I wonder that the author is somehow illustrating that piece of human nature—that we all have this part of our personalities there, ready to be activated . . . or deactivated, as with Emmett. Are we all of us capable of such heinous crimes? No matter what good a person does in the world, could that same person be capable of the same level of action on the opposite, the evil, side of the spectrum?

And then there’s Araxie, this arrestingly beautiful Armenian woman. Emmett somehow comes to believe he must protect her at all costs. And his dreams do not put his mind at rest about what’s happened to her. What should he do with this information now, that he’s in his 90s? What could he hope to do for her now? How could he go his whole life long, practically, as one person, to find out that he’s someone else entirely. Someone who probably should have spent his life in prison. He is decent enough to know that. He hasn’t abandoned all the values and morals that govern human decency just because he once had none. And yet there are sparks in his character, in his sordid past, that make you stop and wonder where in fact he went wrong. What along his path led him to be vicious, when he is capable of compassion, at least in Araxie’s case. Perhaps compassion could only be compelled from him in the face of a strong and beautiful woman. Although if he was to be as he should have been, as a gendarme I mean, a pretty face should have only made him the more cruel. It is his love for Araxie that becomes his saving grace. It redeems him as a character. When normally I would find him repulsive, in fact it is hard not to do so, I find his determination to save one woman very courageous.

By the book’s description, I was expecting the main part of the text to be somewhat of a travelogue. For Emmett/Ahmet to find out his true identity and make for Turkey in search of Araxie. To spend weeks and months there, leaving no stone unturned, and then learn of himself and his past as he went from place to place. But, I have to say that I find Mustian’s creation much more realistic and meaningful. What Emmett spent his whole life looking for, his past, is both terrible and beautiful. It’s a perfect puzzle, one which he will never be able to untangle. One he can only vaguely believe. One he will always regret. Perhaps that is the reason his dreams make him act crazy.

I have to say, this book took dedication to finish. It’s none of it easy to read. I enjoyed the pace, although I found some parts starting to lag. Overall, I found it a very thoughtful read, and I’m sure I’ll be thinking about it for some time still.

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