Part mystery, part historical fiction and part love story, The Gendarme is a short book about many things. The story takes place in two timelines as the 92- year- old protagonist endures the short remainder of his life following the removal of a brain tumor. Emmet is an American Turkish immigrant who lost all prior memory of his life after a head injury sustained during WWI. When his brain tumor is removed, Emmet’s memory seems to slowly return.
In his dreams, he is transported to the past where he appears as a gendarme forcing a group of Armenians into Syria during a grueling and violent death march. Emmet relives his crime, but also his unlikely romance with a young Armenian girl. This girl, forgotten in the aftermath of his injury, obsesses him once more in his old age, and as more is successively experienced in his dreams, he is driven to find out her fate.
While Emmet is pursuing his dream life, his real life continues in the contemporary world. As his mental state deteriorates, he eventually needs to be institutionalized, and his daughters are forced to make arrangements for his day to day care and support. In this timeline, readers experience his confusion in the sense that we, too, are unable to decipher what is real and what is dream or hallucination. Emmet’s fear and paranoia increase the more his dream life develops until he can no longer distinguish one from the other.
Mustian does not always make clear distinctions for the reader either. After finishing the book, I would periodically have to call yet another part of the plot into question until it was no longer possible to depend on any part of it. Even the events in the contemporary timeline are questionable. Reality deteriorates for Emmet while we’ve been following him, so we are drawn into his illusions just as he is. We know there is something from his past that has been unlocked in his memory, but we don’t know how much of it is real and how much of it is construction. The conclusion satisfies, but by then readers will feel themselves at the mercy of the same feverish impulse controlling Emmet in his increasingly irrational push to find what he remembers as the love of his life – and perhaps a type of redemption.
We can’t call Emmet an unreliable narrator because he isn’t the one telling story. However, the narration does objectively follow his perceptions and emotions, so we experience the story as Emmet does. You’ll just have to decide what to believe and whether questioning reality is always worthwhile.