Emmett Conn has been a man without a past for seven decades.
Then the dreams begin.
In Mark Mustian's haunting novel The Gendarme, Emmett's long-suppressed personal past emerges as a sometimes unbearably vivid reminder of a piece of history likewise long forgotten or repressed.
Emmett is 92, a widower living in a small town in southern Georgia in the 1990s. He frets about his estrangement from his daughters and grandson, but his health is surprisingly good and he is content in his solitude after nursing his wife for years before her death.
Until the crushing headaches, and the dreams. The book begins with a confused Emmett waking in an ambulance, after a neighbor sees him collapse in a seizure.
Then he wakes again, or seems to, into a vision of a vast, dark plane, crossed by a railroad track. As he looks closer, he sees an endless line of people trudging across it, guarded by men on horseback. In the brief dream, he realizes he is one of those mounted guards.
The story will alternate between those two realities, with dreams of the past often seeming more real to Emmett than the present, in which doctors soon tell him his seizures and intensely graphic dreams are caused by a tiny glioma, a type of brain tumor.
He's less disturbed by the diagnosis than by the dreams, which seem to be reviving a past he does not recall. He has lived most of his long life with almost no recollection of his childhood or youth because of a head injury he suffered in battle at Gallipoli, in Turkey, during World War I.
His face and uniform shredded, he was taken for a British soldier and woke in a London hospital, his memory entirely gone. Only as he gradually recalled his name and began to speak did his caretakers realize he was a Turk — Ahmet Kahn.
But by then he had a protector, an American nurse named Carol. He learned English, they married and moved to the United States, and he became a successful contractor in New York. They returned to her hometown in Georgia to raise their children. For all those years, Emmett remembered only scraps about his childhood, and nothing about his young manhood before waking in that hospital.
But the dreams seem to take him back to his late teens, before he was a soldier in the Ottoman army. Instead, he was a gendarme, a kind of paramilitary policeman, charged with escorting a group of hundreds of Armenian Christians from their homes in Turkey to camps in Syria.
They were part of the enormous expulsion between 1915 and 1918 of Armenians from the Ottoman Empire, where their ancestors had lived for thousands of years. Some were driven to other countries, but many were killed — estimates range from 1 million to 1.5 million dead in massacres or from disease, starvation and other causes during the forced marches. Although many scholars consider it one of the first modern examples of genocide, to this day the Republic of Turkey denies that genocide occurred.
Emmett's blank memory serves as a metaphor for that denial, but Mustian is focused here not on politics or history but on one man's experience. As Emmett's dreams bring back the past, we can see why it has been unendurable for him. He begins the grueling march with some 700 Armenians in his care, many of them women, children or the old. They starve, they die of dysentery or a dozen other diseases, they are raped and murdered, they are killed for money or a scrap of food, they simply give up. By the time they reach Aleppo, in Syria, fewer than 100 are alive.
As a Muslim Turk and a gendarme, Ahmet is not supposed to care about any of them. But he does care about one, a girl named Araxie. Her exotic beauty, emphasized by her odd eyes — one "dark and somber," one blue as sky — is not an advantage but a terrible vulnerability. Ahmet is drawn to her not just by that beauty but by her strong will, and a strange respect grows between them — perhaps the one thing that keeps his humanity alive in a situation where many other gendarmes lose theirs.
Mustian, who is a lawyer and city commissioner in Tallahassee, crafts a spare but expressive voice for Emmett's narration, whether he is describing the horrors of the march or the humor of a wild night he has while working as a bouncer in an Aleppo brothel, where a dead customer is discovered in one bedroom and a 300-pound customer is stuck in the doorway of another.
Mustian builds a compelling plot by alternating Emmett's present, a round of radiation treatments and angry sparring with his daughter Violet, with the slow cohering of memory in his dreams. As he remembers Araxie, he cannot help but seek her. He pursues her first in sleep and then, in desperation when his dreams dry up, tries to discover her fate in the real world in this moving story of love and war.
Colette Bancroft can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8435. She blogs on Critics Circle at blogs.tampabay.com/arts.
By Mark T. Mustian
Amy Einhorn Books/ Putnam, 294 pages, $25.95
Meet the author
Mark Mustian will be a featured author at the 2010 St. Petersburg Times Festival of Reading, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Oct. 23 at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg. Admission is free. For information, go to festivalof reading.com.