Wednesday, September 8, 2010

The Gendarme - A Novel

Mark Mustian became fascinated with the story of the deportation of the Armenians from Turkey prior to World War I after reading Peter Balakian’s book Black Dog of Fate. He read survivors’ stories, transcripts of oral histories, memoirs, and history books and learned of the denial of the Turkish nation, including the fact that to speak of the Armenian deaths as genocide remains a crime in Turkey to this day. Out of this search comes the beautifully written and emotionally riveting first novel, The Gendarme.

The author explains:
In 1915, at the beginning of World War I, something close to panic gripped the Ottoman Empire, a fear that the sizable Armenian minority in Turkey was aligned with their Christian brethren the Russians in opposition to the Turks in the war. A few reported uprisings prompted a massive and brutal response. Those not killed were forced to join the caravans proceeding south and east to the Syrian desert and then to the city of Aleppo.
Yet, the novel begins in the 1990s, when the 92-year-old Emmet Conn suddenly begins remembering things he doesn't understand but he gradually becomes convinced these visions are true and have been denied or purposefully forgotten by him and others in the time following the war.

As Emmet relives the past in his dreams and visions, we we are able to, in the author's words:
imagine what it would have been like for old men, women, and children to make this journey on foot, along dirt roads in late spring and summer. They would have had to leave almost all of their possessions behind. The sun would have been searing, the paths dusty and arduous and long. Water would have been scarce. Disease and lack of food and thievery would have taken their toll. Some would have walked hundreds of miles. Others would have had to be carried. It was easy to see how many would have failed to survive it.

As Emmet nears the end of his life he sets out on a final journey of reconciliation with the truth. During the war he served as a gendarme and was responsible for escorting Armenian women and children from Turkey. He feels compelled to find the enigmatic, Araxie, the young Armenian girl, who had captivated him and had become the love of his life, only to be lost to him at the end of the war.

Ultimately, "The Gendarme" is a story of redemption and survival at the most basic human level. It is a book I recommend for the same reason the author gives for writing about this event that so many want to forget:
People sometimes ask, Why would you want to write about this, or even know of it, when your immediate ancestors were not part of the tragedy? I have no simple answers. In some ways the distance is helpful, permitting me a novelist’s audacity in attempting to probe the mind of one most would consider a perpetrator. In other ways it is deadening, a balm stifling emotion and fostering apathy and appeasement. Remembering is living. Forgetting, as Ahmet Khan learns, has its costs. Decades on, even centuries on, our shared history remains vital, the connection, however tenuous, to some tribal sense of before. Time stretches and calms, but still we reach, for we belonged then. We want to know. Sometimes that knowledge is painful, or inconvenient, or even damning. But it is essential. It exposes us for what we have been, and can be.
Buy this book online

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