Extraordinary, unforgettable debut
Every decade or so, I find a novel that I sense, just by reading the basic description, will become unforgettable; after reading only 20 pages of The Gendarme, my impression was confirmed with great force. For this decade, and this reader, The Gendarme is that extraordinary, unforgettable novel, set during the Armenian genocide, a divisive, ever-evolving controversy among nations.
When he first looks into Araxie Marashlian’s eyes, one blue, one green, Ahmet Khan knows immediately that her effect upon him will be lasting. Seven decades later, when he is dying at the age of 90, she remains unforgettable. Ahmet, a Muslim gendarme guarding the exodus of Armenians out of the Ottoman Empire during World War I, and Araxie, one of thousands of Christian Armenians forced to walk more than a thousand miles toward Armenia, are as mismatched as her exotic eyes.
A first-time novelist, Mark T. Mustian made the brilliant artistic decision to develop two disparate narratives in alternate chapters: the progress of Ahmet’s battle with a fatal disease in America in the present and the progression of the death march of Araxie’s people until they bog down in Aleppo in Syria in the past.
Scenes set in the present, mostly in the hospital, reveal Ahmet’s fears as a dying 90-year-old and his strained relationship with his daughter. Scenes in the past, during the horrendous march out of Anatolia and into the ancient city of Aleppo, dramatize his faltering efforts to win Araxie’s love and his conflict with Mustapha, a vicious fellow gendarme. But from the first few pages, Mustian meshes Ahmet’s agony in the present with his desperate attempts to recapture in fine detail his submerged memories of Araxie. The unusually fast-paced, crystal-clear and fine-tuned style Mustian has forged to render internal and external events is superb.
Having immersed himself and the reader in memories of his bizarre, wondrous love affair, Ahmet sets out to find Araxie and ask her forgiveness for failing to protect her from maltreatment by his countrymen. Mustian has imagined a final chapter that is inventive, unforgettable and shockingly surprising, for both Ahmet and the reader. One can only eagerly await what he’ll come up with next.