During World War I, Ahmet Kahn, a Turkish soldier, suffers an injury that destroys his memory of the past. He starts over in the United States with a new name and, as Emmett Conn, leads a long and unremarkable life. We meet Emmett in 1990; he is (probably) 92, perhaps senile, and certainly very ill. He has a brain tumor, seizures, dreams, and nightmares. As Emmet is losing his hold on the present, his past is, cruelly, returned to him.
The Gendarme alternates between 1990 and 1915, when 17-year-old Ahmet Kahn, a gendarme (paramilitary police), is assigned to escort Armenian deportees from Turkey to Syria. The trek, based on real events, is ill-conceived, poorly planned, and inhumane. Supplies of water and food are insufficient. Guards use and mistreat deportees. Thousands who sicken and die, or are killed, are left along the trail. Ahmed tries to maintain order; he fears his own potential for brutality. Then he falls in love with Arexi, one of the prisoners. Love makes him vulnerable but preserves his humanity. Then Arexi disappears.
The determination to find Arexi again is reborn in the old man. We follow Emmett’s re-awakening with mixed emotions. If he finds Alexi, will she remember him? Does she hate him and, if so, why? Is Arexi dead? The answers to Emmett’s questions will satisfy readers.
Culpability for the death of thousands of Armenians through forced deportation is still debated in Europe. Mustian draws readers into an ugly part of history—but in a way that makes human actions understandable without condoning them. The Gendarme is highly recommended.