BG: Short Takes: THE GENDARME By Mark T. Mustian

By Amanda Heller
By Murray Bail

Other, 208 pp., paperback, $14.95

Urban versus rural. The active versus the contemplative life. The Old
World versus the antipodean New. Numerous such dichotomies are examined
in this handsomely written novel by the Australian author Murray Bail.

As a disembodied narrative voice observes early on, philosophy needs
dank winters and venerable surroundings; it is alien to sun-baked,
extroverted Australia. It is therefore with some skepticism that
philosophy professor Erica Hazelhurst makes the seven-hour drive
from Sydney into the outback to inspect the papers of the late Wesley
Antill, who, while working in obscurity on the sheep farm run by his
brother and sister, may possibly have composed a genuine Australian
philosophical oeuvre, a theory of the emotions.

Erica and her excitable friend Sophie, whom she has taken along for
company, confront their own emotions as they experience this unfamiliar
yet oddly comforting place. Meanwhile, a parallel plotline consisting
of Wesley’s diaries – a portrait of the philosopher as a young man –
solves the mystery of his unlikely intellectual development and his
sudden withdrawal into seclusion.

A certain sketchiness notwithstanding – this is one novel that might
have benefited from less rather than more concision – “The Pages”
presents a mature exploration of matters of the heart as well as
the mind.

MY FATHER’S PLACES: A Memoir by Dylan Thomas’s Daughter By Aeronwy
Thomas Skyhorse, 224 pp., illustrated, $19.95

It was the “house on stilts” Dylan Thomas described in “Poem on His
Birthday” – the “Boat House” in the Welsh village of Laugharne where he
moved his growing family in 1949 in order to concentrate on his poetry.

The turbulent marriage of Dylan and Caitlin Thomas has been well
documented. In “My Father’s Places” their daughter, Aeronwy, offers
an extraordinarily acute and pungent child’s-eye view. The Boat House
years were a topsy-turvy country idyll punctuated by flying crockery
and the frequent spectacle of the poet and his wife rolling around
the cottage floor, attempting to throttle the overabundant life out
of each other. Little Aeronwy had two regular chores: to fetch her
father back from the pub at her exasperated mother’s command, and to
tend her baby brother while her parents went out carousing every night.

Unsurprisingly, she developed a wild and defiant streak herself.

This chapter of her life was as brief as it was chaotic: Aeronwy was
only 10 when Dylan Thomas left on his final, fatal American tour. So
vividly does she evoke the ambiguous gift of a bohemian childhood,
it comes as a shock to learn that she died last year at 66, just
before this memoir was published.

THE GENDARME By Mark T. Mustian Amy Einhorn/Putnam, 304 pp., $25.95

The year is 1990. A 92-year-old World War I veteran named Emmett Conn
should be spending his final years in tranquility on the porch of his
south Georgia home. Instead, he is besieged by horrifying nightmares
as a brain tumor unpacks memories long hidden in the attic of his

His real name, he now acknowledges, is Ahmet Khan, and as a young
recruit in the Turkish militia, he participated in a crime against
humanity, the deadly forced march driving ethnic Armenians –
men, women, and children – out of Turkey. Among the captives was
an indomitable girl named Araxie, with whom he became obsessed. A
captive himself now of old age and illness, Emmett, tormented by guilt,
decides he must find her, if she is still alive, and beg forgiveness.

“The Gendarme” is clearly a labor of love for Mark Mustian, who is by
trade a lawyer, not a novelist. The historical facts of the Armenian
genocide need to be told, though he tells them with a grating mix of
exotic color and earnest didacticism. If good intentions were all,
the book might be judged a success, but there is more to writing
convincing fiction than honorable intent.

Amanda Heller, a critic and editor who lives in Newton, can be reached
at [email protected]

From: A. Papazian

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