Sunday, February 13, 2011
Book Review: The Gendarme by Mark T. Mustian
Amy Einhorn Books/Putnam
I just finished this book which I received as a Christmas present. When I first read the dust jacket blurb, I thought: "eh... I am not sure I will enjoy this. The premise is too far fetched." I read it because I was interested, call it morbid curiosity if you would like, in seeing how the author, Mark Mustian, would develop the plot. I also read it because I have, as many Armenians do, an equally morbid curiosity in hashing, re-hashing, and forever trying to make sense of the Armenian Genocide. So, I read it the book and must commend Mark Mustian for weaving what I believed was a lame premise into a very good and engaging novel.
Mustian attempts to relate the Armenian Genocide from the point of view of Turkish Gendarme charged with taking a group of Armenians from Harput to Syria. This fellow Emmett Conn, the anglicized version of the man born as Ahmet Khan, lost much of his memory from an injury sustained after the Genocide at the Battle of Gallipoli. Circumstances lead him to end up in the United States living in the state of Georgia. At the end of his life, Emmett begins having dreams of his role in the ethnic cleansing of Armenians from Turkey. The book is about the piecing together of his memory and coming to terms with his past and past actions before he dies.
I do not want to dwell more on the plot and the details of the book. The power of the premise and how Mark Mustian brings it to life is powerful. The reader needs to let the novel guide him and part of the experience is lost if the entire plot is laid out in a review. It is noteworthy to add that Mustian has done a wonderful job writing about the Genocide and forced march form an Armenian region from the point of view of a Turkish Gendarme. Armenians tend to portray Turks as villains and heartless enemies. They are not often humanized in the way Mustian has. I am not certain if any other author, Armenian, Turk, or one of another nationality has attempted this. I believe it has been done with the Holocaust. The only example that comes to mind is the 1974 film, The Night Porter which was quite a controversial and disturbing film.
Mark Mustian is a bit like Michael Arlen, the author of Passage to Ararat. He came to realize and investigate his Armenian background later in life. Mark Mustian knew of his Armenian heritage but he is not prototypical in that he did not have a grandparent or great-grandparent that went through the horrors of the 1915 Genocide. In fact, his paternal grandfather immigrated to the Unite States so much earlier than most Armenians that he fought for the Confederacy in the Civil War. If he has enough information and background, I would hope to see Mark Mustian write the story of his grandfather.
In this 30s, Mustian became interest in his Armenian heritage was kindled when he read Peter Balakian’s Black Dog of Fate. Reading that book inspired Mustian to learn more about Armenians in general and the Genocide more specifically. He was so inspired that he took a trip to Turkey and Syria from August 1-8, 2008. I can imagine the idea for the book was born from that trip. Mustian has posted a brief travel log on the his website: http://www.markmustian.com/mmustian-travelogue.htm
Also like Michael Arlen, Mark Mustian embraced his heritage or part of his heritage. The cynical would say both of them embraced their heritage because there was a book in it for them. Maybe so, but I look at this glass as half full. I am amazed how these two literary gentlemen responded when they were exposed to Armenian people, history, and culture. Both of them were fascinated enough to make trips. Michael Arlen went both to Armenia (Soviet Armenia in those days) and Turkey. Mark Mustian went to Turkey and Syria. That is no mean commitment to learning something new about ones background.
Both men also being fixated and obsessed with the Genocide. Mustian’s entire book is dedicated to this huge, grim, and recent episode in Armenian history. And why should they become fixated and obsessed? Most serious Armenians are obsessed with it. We all think and write about it. We are still trying to come to grips with it and get closure on it 96 years after the fact. As Mustian points in the suffix of the book that many modern Turks do not understand why Armenians are obsessed with the events of 1915. The Turks have moved on.
Of course, they have moved on and only dwell on these events from 1915 when Armenians raise it to the levels of national and international press and politics. The victors, the vanquishers, never dwell on the negative parts of their wins. Turkey survived and emerged from the ravages of World War I and the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire with a Republic that for the most part has thrived. They celebrate that and do not dwell on how they secured that and who might have suffered along the way. It is no different than the United States. We celebrate our “purple mountains majesty from sea to shining sea.” We do not dwell on the native peoples whose land, lives, and lifestyles we destroyed to take over the land. Many Americans are surprised at how much the remaining American Indians are obsessed and fixated on this. The dynamic at hand is quite clear... at least to me.
One can also read a short biography of Mark Mustian on the website. You will learn that beyond being an author, he is a lawyer and city commissioner in Tallahassee, FL. If nothing else, I highly recommend reading the backstory http://www.markmustian.com/mmustian-gendarme-backstory.htm. It is exactly like the backstory in the novel, I would have called it a suffix, appendix, or have put it at the beginning and called it a prefix. Read it... it is a good, short, piece of writing.
The Gendarme is quite well done and worth reading if the subject matter appeals to you. It is interesting if you are Armenian and should be of interest to Turks as well. I would generally recommend it to anyone.