Title: The Gendarme
Author: Mark Mustian
Release Date: September 2, 2010
Publisher: Amy Einhorn Books
Genre: Literary Fiction
Rating: 3.5 out of 5
Emmet Conn is a 92 year old man living in the United States. He is ethnically Turkish and fought in World War I against the Brits at Gallipoli. After the war, he made his way to the United States and started over, changing his name and his identity. Now, his biggest battle is his health and his age.
That is, until Emmett starts having dreams of his days as a gendarme in the Turkish army. He starts to dream about events that he’s sure never happened; specifically, about his role in the Armenian genocide. He remembers an Armenian girl named Araxie, someone he loved. The question is, are these really dreams, or is Emmett remembering something he has forced himself to forget?
The Gendarme is one of those books I’ve been wanting to read since I first heard about it months ago. It’s an Amy Einhorn book, first of all, so I knew it would be interesting. But more than that, the subject matter really intrigued me. I know bits and pieces about the Armenian genocide by the Turks during World War I, and I’ve always wanted to know more. This book seemed like a great way to learn about a tragic period of history.
Having finished it, I have to say that I have mixed feelings about The Gendarme. On one had, it was brilliantly written; Mark Mustian is a talented writer and it shows on every page of this book. His prose is clear and precise, and somehow makes difficult events a little easier to read.
Mustian also captures the main character, Emmett Conn, very well. As mentioned in the summary, Emmett is 92 years old when the book begins. His aging body is beginning to fail him, and if that isn’t difficult enough, he thinks he’s losing his grip on reality. These memories that come to him in dreams are foreign, yet familiar, and they frighten him. I could feel Emmett’s frustration, sympathize with his confusion. Above all, I just wanted him to understand and come to terms with what was happening to him. He was an incredibly written character and seemed so real. I appreciated Mustian’s depiction of the difficulty of growing old; it was something I could really feel through the author’s wonderful prose.
The Armenian genocide is, of course, a very difficult topic, and one that far too few people know about. As a result, the fact that it was a central topic in The Gendarme really attracted me to it. The reader gets Emmett’s firsthand view of some of the events of the genocide: the march to Syria, the brutal killing, the rapes. All the gendarmes, including him, commit unspeakable acts of savagery and brutality against the Armenians. The reader really gets a sense of how horrible it all was, yet Mustian is careful not to push the reader over the edge. Just when it’s getting to be too much, he makes sure to rein the book in, usually by switching back to the point of view of the older Emmett.
However, at the same time, I wanted more. Because all we see is Emmett’s point of view of the genocide, it’s hard to put the broader course of events together in your mind. I was left with so many questions about the genocide as a whole. While a few of these were answered through the author’s note, I would have loved some sort of overview of the relationship between the Armenians and Turks, and what led to the genocide, as well as more information on what actually happened. Being a witness to brutality is certainly moving and made me feel for the Armenians, but I would have liked more information about the history.
Don’t get me wrong – I did like The Gendarme. But I feel that without the historical background, the urgency to get to the end of the book, to find out what happens, was somewhat lacking. I was able to walk away from the book for days, coming back only when I realized that I needed to finish it before a book club discussion. It was certainly well-written and interesting, but it did have some flaws that prevent me from recommending it unconditionally. That being said, I’m glad Mustian chose to write about the Armenian genocide, as it’s a topic that deserves a place in our consciousness. As I said, I read it for a book club and I think it will make a fantastic pick. It’s a book I’m itching to discuss, especially to see if anyone felt the same way about it as I did.