I decided to read The Gendarme because I have a slight professional connection to the author, Mark Mustian. In his non-noveling hours, Mark is a bond lawyer in Tallahassee, Florida and we’ve occasionally worked on the same transactions. When I saw that he’d published his debut novel, of course I had to read it. I went in with admittedly low expectations (sorry, Mark) because, well, I kind of know this guy, so how could anyone I actually kind of know, and especially a bond lawyer, write a great novel? Happily, my somewhat low expectations were exceeded, and then some. In fact, because I know from personal experience what excruciatingly boring documents bond lawyers work on in their professional roles, I wondered more than once while reading The Gendarme how Mark could write such beautiful and moving prose after hours. How did he make this transition? Did he stop in a phone booth to do a Superman-type transformation on the way home each night? Where did he find an actual phone booth in which to do this? I need to figure this out.
The Gendarme tells the story of an elderly Turkish-American, Emmett Conn, who is having flashbacks to his youth. As a very young man, Emmett served as one of the soldiers implementing the forced migration of ethnic Armenians in a brutal march across Turkey that resulted in the death of over a million people between 1915 and 1918. Throughout his adult life in the U.S., Emmett has repressed his memories of that time, and even of his original name, Ahmet Khan. It’s an interesting lens through which to see this horrifying period in history. Emmett seems like a nice old guy who would never imagine taking part in the inhumane treatment of others. Or, at least, that’s what he and everyone around him thinks before the flashbacks begin. Memories also begin surfacing of a woman Emmett knows he must have loved, but he has no memory of what happened to her. I won’t tell you how it all works out, because you should really read the book yourself. Let’s just say Emmett goes a long way to find out.
The Gendarme is a beautiful first novel.
For some inexplicable reason, I completely forgot that the friend who loaned me Sarah’s Key specifically told me it was about the Holocaust, and so I picked it up for a bit of light reading right after finishing The Gendarme. For future reference, I wouldn’t suggest reading a Holocaust story immediately after a novel set during the Armenian genocide. It was a little overwhelming. Sarah’s Key follows the parallel paths of Julia, a modern-day writer living in Paris, and Sarah, a young Jewish girl whose family is arrested by Paris police along with thousands of others during the Vel d’Hiver roundup in July, 1942. Ultimately, nearly everyone taken during the Vel d’Hiver roundup was transported to Auschwitz and murdered by the Nazis. Many never made it that far. Julia has lived most of her adult life Paris, but has never heard of this detail of French history. For that matter, most of her Parisian friends and family seem to know not much more about it than she does. When Julia begins researching the Vel d’Hiver roundup for an article she’s writing in honor of the 60th anniversary of the event, she realizes the extent to which Parisians tried to forget those dark days, and discovers her own family’s unexpected connection has to the tragedy.
I’ve read other reviews that say that the story loses some of its power at the point that the author drops the part of the story being told by Sarah. I actually had the same thought at that point in the book, but the flaw isn’t great enough to discourage readers.
Sarah’s Key reminds us of the extent of the tragedy of the Holocaust. Though I’ve read a good bit on the Holocaust over the years, the horror of it and the hatred that engendered it continue to be unfathomable to me. The Gendarme was even more of an eye-opener. Although I’d heard of the Armenian genocide, I knew very little about it. Learning more about the events in Turkey made me think of the other genocides that we tend to overlook (Bosnia, Rwanda), but that were devastating to uncountable numbers of people. The fact that these crimes were perpetrated by such diverse groups compounds the horror. This isn’t a crime that only Nazis can carry out — it can happen anywhere, at any time. The next time you hear someone disparaging a group of people in a generalized way, the way that makes them seem less human somehow, and more acceptable to despise because “they’re not like us,” remember that people have used similar excuses for generations to excuse their own evil acts.
Lawyers and Novelists
As an aside, about a year ago I read The Amber Room, by Steve Berry, on the same theory that got me to pick up a copy of The Gendarme. Steve has, or rather, used to have, a law practice in south Georgia (I imagine he’s too busy traveling the world searching for new book ideas to practice law anymore). In an earlier phase in my career, I used to go fairly regularly to Steve’s offices for closings. I had no idea at the time that I was in the presence of a future best-selling novelist. In fact, it never would have crossed my mind. (Sorry, Steve – you just seemed like a regular guy to me.) Actually, it was reading the FAQ on Steve’s webpage that originally inspired me to try my own hand at writing a novel. In the FAQ, Steve describes the timeline in which he wrote and published his first book. Though it may seem daunting to some, I was actually encouraged to see that it took 12 years of writing from the time he started his first novel to the time The Amber Room was published. 12 years. I think because my earlier attempts had seemed so… unprofessional, it was encouraging to think that if I kept trying, I might actually improve. Rather than making me want to jump off the Dames Point Bridge, this gave me a little odd hope that sometimes perseverance really does pay off.
Here’s the direct quote from Steve’s FAQ:
He made the decision to write a novel in 1990. It was something Steve thought about for years, but finally decided to act on. That first attempt was long and awful. The second and third attempts weren’t much better. It wasn’t until the fourth try that he began to appreciate the reality that writing novels is hard. Steve kept writing for 12 years and produced 8 manuscripts. Each one was a learning experience and, as he wrote, Steve studied the craft. His education was one of trial and error. He attended a writing workshop once a week for 6 years, where the participants would tear apart everything he wrote. Then he’d go home and put it all back together again, hopefully a little better than before. Between the workshop, the writers’ group, and writing every day Steve taught himself the craft. Not until six years into the process was he fortunate to land an agent: Pam Ahearn. She kept him around for 7 years until May 2002, when Ballantine Books finally bought The Amber Room. During those years Pam submitted five different manuscripts to New York publishers, each one was rejected, 85 rejections all total, until eventually, on the 86th attempt, the right-editor-at-the-right-time-with-the-right-story was found. Like Steve says, ‘he may or may not know much about writing, but he’s an expert on rejection.’
Thanks, Steve, for the glimmer of hope.