Mark T. Mustian’s first novel, The Gendarme, has the most striking cover — the half-face of a young woman with olive skin and a deep blue eye. If you unfold the cover flat, you see her full face and that her other eye is hazel.
Such mismatched eyes belong to a character in the story, the Armenian girl Araxie, but they also remind us that memory’s eye colors the past, often to our benefit, perhaps for our protection. Sometimes, too, that eye is hazy, even blind. So it is for 92-year-old Emmett Conn, who lost most of his early memories when he was injured during World War I. But now, more than 70 years later, a small tumor in his brain reawakens him to his lost childhood and youth. In his dreams, he is speaking Turkish. And the dreams are mostly nightmares.
Before Emmet Conn married an American nurse and moved to the United States, he was Ahmet Khan and fought at Gallipoli, where he was misidentified as a Britsh soldier. “I remember dreaming as a child of coming to America. Once I arrived, the life I lived before seemed lived by another, someone muted and dreamlike. Someone I remember no longer.”
But after surgery, new memories of his old life are vivid, violent. He’s a gendarme in the Ottoman army, “escorting” Armenians from Turkey, herding them like sheep. In the midst of the atrocities, he meets the girl with mismatched eyes, Araxie. He intends to harm her, but then pulls back. Instead, he will help her, protect her, love her. The war separates them. He tries to find her. And then . . . his memory shuts down. He forgets her.
Mustian writes in the present tense, so Emmett’s dreams have the stabbing immediacy of lived experience as they interrupt his present-day recovery. As he tries to sort through the reality of then and now, he contends with his daughter and doctors, who diagnose “complex partial seizures.” But he knows he is not a crazy old man. A hospital bed in Syria. A mental clinic in Georgia. The narrative shifts back and forth. He was obsessed with Araxie then. He is obsessed once more.
The Gendarme becomes not just a story of love and war and loss but of memory itself — powerful, painful, redemptive. You won’t forget it.
Datebook/Open Book: Mark Mustian is a Tallahassee attorney and city commissioner. He will be at Books & Books in Coral Gables at 8 tonight (9/20) and at Stardust Video and Coffee in Orlando at 6 p.m. tomorrow (9/21). His publicist, Stella Connell, sent me a copy of The Gendarme (Amy Einhorn/Putnam).