The Gendarme by Mark Mustian
Published by Amy Einhorn Books, an imprint of Penguin
The first thing that caught my attention about “The Gendarme” was the arresting cover. I found it very reminiscent of the National Geographic cover of the Afghan girl, if a slightly less intense gaze. When I read the jacket copy and saw that it was about Turkey and the Armenians in WWI, I was totally sold.
And, although, it was not at all what I expected, “The Gendarme” did not disappoint.
Emmet Cohn was born Ahmet Khan in Turkey at the end of the 19th century. Unfortunately, he does not remember much of anything before he woke up in a British hospital during World War I with severe head trauma. He made it to the United States due to the determination of his American nurse, whom he married. After a long life in which he considered himself American first and foremost, Emmet, 92 and recently diagnosed with a brain tumor, has become dreaming again of Turkey. Specifically, he is dreaming of being a gendarme – which is odd, because he is positive he was a Turkish solider, not a gendarme – who is taking a group of Armenians to Syria and is beguiled by an Armenian girl with two different colored eyes, Araxie.
I really enjoyed “The Gendarme,” the way it worked through memory, sins of the past, aging, sickness, duty, and repentance. The two storylines were worked together masterfully, particularly considering there was not always a visual cue of transition. One thing bled into another with ease and occasionally when the transition was overly quick, it was wonderfully evocative of exactly what Emmet must have been going through with his tumor and increasingly frequent lapses between waking and dreams. I adored the uncertainty – shared by Emmett himself – of whether or not we could trust him as a narrator, or whether him tumor and previous head trauma left him unreliable. There were times I felt that I shouldn’t buy the blossoming relationship between Emmett and Araxie, with all of the hardships between them, but Mustian wrote them so compellingly that I had a difficult time not believing their relationship, unlikely as it may have seemed.
In “The Gendarme,” Mustian blends history and the human spirit beautifully. Highly recommended.
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