The Gendarme by Mark Mustian

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The Gendarme by Mark Mustian

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Category: Historical Fiction
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Andy Lancaster
Reviewed by Andy Lancaster
Summary: The events of the Armenian genocide at the hands of the Turks during the First World War is still surrounded by controversy and emotion. Mark Mustian creates a harrowing account of this through the eyes of one of its perpetrators, who falls in love with one of his victims. Yet at the same time he creates ultimately a tale of hope and spirit which celebrates life in the midst of death.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 302 Date: September 2011
Publisher: Oneworld Publications
ISBN: 978-1851688265

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There are times when you will want to shut 'The Gendarme' and just walk away from the despair and disgust that this account of genocide engenders. Don't. Ultimately this tale of an old Turk revisiting his terrible past is both touching and important - an exploration of memory and forgiveness that shouldn't be missed.

Emmett Conn has a brain tumour which gives him dreams, dreams which he comes to realise are memories of a previous existence as a gendarme escorting Armenian civilians from their homes in what amounts to ethnic cleansing. Set in the actual events of the First World War, this harrowing account of the thoughts and emotions of this rapist, torturer and murderer is carefully controlled and paced so that while revolted at his actions we also see his motives and emotions. And the device of Emmett's memory loss that Mustain uses enables us to have at least some sympathy with Emmett as he discovers more of the harrowing truth.

Central to the narrative however is not the violence and brutality, but an emerging love story which redeems Emmett, humanises him and his relation with his captives, and which ultimately dramatically transforms the future of this young soldier. His search to woo Araxie, the Armenian, in the hell of the forced repatriation march forms the core of the historical narrative, but the parallel story of the 92 year old Emmett is also a search, a search through his dreams for the truth of his own past that he lost through a brain injury.

And it is this touching account of an old man struggling with a brain tumour, trying to make a dignified passage through a terminal illness, through family relations and doctors, through increasing helplessness and confusion which really transforms this novel. Without this aspect, we would have a tortured account of a historical atrocity, a kind of 'Babi Yar'. But with it we explore the search for a 'good end' of life, and a moving unpacking of notions of forgiveness and making amends.

Mustian achieves a real tour-de-force here. The novel is a switchback of emotion, from disgust to anger, from sympathy to hope. And this is achieved not through tricks and gimmicks but through a calm and assured (and frequently poetically detailed and dramatic) voice which leads us through what seems to be a completely logical and believable set of events. Ultimately we are left with much more than an account of wartime - this complex novel reveals much about how humanity survives even the harshest circumstances.

Mustian is not the only writer to have looked into the experiences of war, and particularly the experiences of those very minor characters which are not part of normal histories, and to have derived a sense of nobility in the face of horror. The Madonnas of Leningrad by Debra Dean explores the life of a museum guard in the Leningrad siege, again seeing war through the eyes of a character's older self.

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