Emmett Conn has lived a long, normal, and moderately happy life. A veteran of the First World War, he’s now 92 years old and regrettably suffering from a brain tumor which has a strong chance of ending his life. An injury in battle erased his memory from before the war, but thanks to a combination of drugs and the tumor, flashbacks emerge, where Emmett (then known as Ahmet Khan) was a gendarme during the Armenian genocide in the Ottoman Empire during the very beginning of World War I. None of this fits with Emmett’s knowledge of his past, but as the scenes continue to play out in his head, he begins to believe that he was that man and question the entire basis of his American life.
This was such a powerful book. I thought the reflections were the perfect way to tell the story; it’s an amazing contrast between Emmett’s settled US life and his job forcing the Armenians out of the country. It’s impossible to like him at first, and I’d say it remains difficult throughout the book, simply because he is brutal. He, like so many young impulsive people, seems almost addicted to the feeling of power. The Armenians become faceless evil to him, an “other” that has committed crimes against his people; thus he can commit crimes against them without thinking. It’s a tale that you can find throughout history, still going on in the present day; if we can dehumanize our enemies, it appears easier to watch them suffer or even kill them, for most people. I knew (and know) virtually nothing about the Armenian genocide, regrettably, but it is surely this type of thinking which allows such unspeakable crimes to happen. Even now, we can happily stereotype people based on their age, their race, their gender, their religion, but if you know anyone at all you’ll realize that each and every person is different.
So Emmett discovers when he gets to know Araxie. He finds himself drawn to her without realizing why, and then when he comes to know her, he struggles more with the atrocities he’s committed. He knows they’re wrong. He knows he doesn’t want to hurt her, feels guilty for killing people she knows and loves. He learns precisely that lesson; that each person, no matter where they come from or what they look like, is still just a person. That’s why this book, for me, was so powerful and moving. It was not just an incredible story, but it had that anti-prejudice theme running through it so strongly. I can’t stand people who discriminate against others for any reason; so I struggled to like Emmett. Sure, he doesn’t look evil in the present day, but then how many murderers astonish their family and friends with the crimes they’ve committed? But then he started to realize what he’d done, and I appreciated him more along with the book as the story continued.
Make no mistake, at times this is a violent and disturbing book, but these things happened. Turks did rape, assault, and murder Armenians as they deported them. Mustian doesn’t really shield us from the atrocities committed and at times, the parts in the present come as a relief because the parts in the past are hard to take. It wouldn’t be as meaningful without this, though, and in the end I think a more accurate and detailed depiction is necessary.
The Gendarme is a powerful portrait of and a cry against prejudice. It’s also a really good, gripping story, as Emmett’s past is revealed through his memories and has an increasing impact on his future. Highly recommended.
I am an Amazon Associate. Many many thanks to Candace at Beth Fish Reads for sending this to me for our book club!