Book Review: The Gendarme

Rating: 3.5 out of 5

Last night I commemorated the centennial of the Armenian Genocide by visiting San Francisco's city hall, which was lit up in red, blue, and orange to match the Armenian flag.

Unfortunately, the fire department forbid me and the hundreds of people waiting outside to join the speeches and dance performance in the already packed hall, so I left with nothing but a few good photos.

This experience mirrored my minor disappointment while reading Mark T. Mustian's The Gendarme (2010). The historical fiction novel is narrated by Ahmet Khan, or his preferred Americanized name Emmett Conn, who is in his 90s and suffering from disturbing dreams caused by a brain tumor.

These dreams are actually flashbacks during the Armenian Genocide, in which Emmett participated as a gendarme--a Turkish soldier. His job was to send Armenian deportees through the desert to Syria, but he quickly learned that this march was to their deaths as both countries' governments had no intention of keeping them alive.

During the trek, Emmett falls in love with an inappropriately young Armenian girl named Araxie. Despite the barbarity he commits on this journey, he risks his life to protect hers. When they finally arrive in Syria, he must decide how to escape their wretched fate.

I must warn you that this book is horrifyingly graphic. Not only do Emmett and his fellow gendarmes sexually assault and murder innocent people, those who are spared succumb to debilitating diseases. It takes a long time before the reader can sympathize with Emmett for being on the wrong side of history.

However, in the end, I felt pity for this man for his life of suffering, both when he was young committing atrocities and in his old age when his family commits him to an institution for his mental instability. You are already aware that Emmett and Araxie did not escape the genocide together, and it's especially heartbreaking to watch Emmett realize his crimes after decades of post-traumatic repression.

The Gendarme isn't the most well-written story, and many readers will find its nonlinear structure aggravating. I should also point out that although Mustian and I are both Armenians, I appreciated reading a Turk's perspective--however abhorrent it may be.

This book cannot compare to The Sandcastle Girls in terms of literary prowess, but both are excellent tales of this historical tragedy that does not get enough attention. The Gendarme made me sob at the end, but more importantly, it made me grateful for what my ancestors suffered so that my family could live on.

Book Review: The Sandcastle Girls

Rating: 4.5 out of 5

One of the best feelings when you're reading is when the story gains momentum and you just have to keep going until you finish it. This was one of those stories, and I'm so glad. As an Armenian, I had very high expectations of Chris Bohjalian's The Sandcastle Girls, because it addresses the historical tragedy closest to my heart.

Bohjalian certainly doesn't disappoint when it comes to discussing, as he puts it, "The Slaughter You Know Next to Nothing About." Although Turkey, the United States, and various other countries refrain from calling the annihilation of 1.5 million Armenians a "genocide," that's exactly what it was. Between 1915 and 1923, we lost over half of our population, forever impacting future generations.

These multiple generations are all included in The Sandcastle Girls, since the author writes two stories concurrently. Laura Petrosian is writing a novel in the present-day about her grandparents, Armenian engineer Armen Petrosian and Bostonian volunteer Elizabeth Endicott.

In 1915, Armen has escaped the clutches of the Turks, killing men and losing his wife and daughter in the process. He meets Elizabeth in Aleppo, Syria, where her, her father, and other Americans are doing their best to help the survivors. The two quickly fall in love, but when Armen decides to fight in the war, their relationship must withstand great distance and the uncertainty of whether they'll ever meet again.

Of course, the reader knows that they're eventually reunited, otherwise Laura would not have been born and able to share her memories of her grandparents. From describing delicious cheese boregs to offering anecdotes of contemporary tension between Armenians and Turks, I appreciated such a devotion to our culture.

Even though my own family escaped the genocide before the death marches began, I related so much to this story. Having Armenian ancestry seems to be essential to our people, whether they're full-blooded Hyes (Armenians) or part-odars (outsiders). Bohjalian does an excellent job explaining the nuances of our diaspora, and I recommend this novel to anyone who wants to learn more about it.

Obviously, this book won't be for everybody. If you have a weak constitution, you probably won't be able to handle the graphic scenes of rape, torture, dismemberment, disease, and death. Before the pace picked up, I would have to read this story in small amounts, just to save myself from becoming too emotionally overwhelmed. As many other readers have pointed out, this is not a beach read, but it's a read that makes you simply grateful that you're alive.

Some have called The Sandcastle Girls formulaic and melodramatic, its characters annoying and two-dimensional. Others dislike the flipping back and forth between past and present. I, on the other hand, argue that the book effectively weaves together this family's lineage, but whether it's 1915 or 2012, people are not always likeable or relatable. They make mistakes, and this genocide was one of the biggest mistakes in human history.

It's easy to call this a wartime love story, but I think it's also disrespectful to narrow it down like that. Bohjalian simultaneously educates his audience with historical research and vividly paints the picture of the desolate desert where  over a million Armenians met their doom. I know that I'm biased, but The Sandcastle Girls is so much bigger than boy-meets-girl, and if you read it, I hope you'll agree.

I won't spoil the meaning of the book's title, but I think that a sandcastle is an apt metaphor for Armenia. We may have been trodded and trampled on in the past, but we were a shining beacon of hope in that desert, and we'll continue to rebuild. For a race to experience such horror, we have become even more industrious, hard-working, and thankful for each day.

And even if those who wish us ill try to demolish the sandcastle and brush away the sandy remains as if it had never existed, what they'll fail to erase is our memories. That, to me, is the most powerful weapon of all.