by Franz Werfel
English translation by Geoffrey Dunlop and James Reidel
Published in 1933
In 1915, during World War I, the government of the Ottoman Empire took measures to expel its Armenian minority, which was relatively wealthy and generally Christian. Expulsion turned to eradication as entire communities of Armenians were brutally transferred, death-march style (causing the deaths of tens of thousands along the way), to horrific relocation camps (where untold thousands more perished). When the relocation orders came to the Armenian communities of Hatay, the populace revolted; the locals retreated up the coastal mountain of Musa Dagh and dug trenches. Several waves of Ottoman troops tried and failed to drive them out of their makeshift fortress. The Armenians held out for fifty-three days before they were rescued by French naval forces. (Werfel shortened the siege to forty days because he liked the religious resonance of the number.)
One of the Armenian men who defended Musa Dagh was my wife's great-great-grandfather. It's the ancestral meaning the story has for her that was the reason why she and then I read Werfel's book. (It's also why we visited the Musa Dagh region when we were in Turkey last year.) And what's more, the book is an important work of historical fiction; it is still the best-known literary work to deal with the events for which the word 'genocide' was first coined.
Make no mistake, this is a work of fiction. All of the Armenian characters are heavily fictionalized, although Werfel does delve into the heads of several non-Armenian actual historical figures such as Enver Pasha and Johannes Lepsius. Werfel shortened the length of the siege from 53 to 40 days, and if Wikipedia's figure of 18 Armenian deaths in the fighting is accurate, then Werfel substantially inflated the death toll.
But that does not diminish the struggle of the actual Armenians who defended their families on that mountain in 1915. Even if the number of deaths in actual history did not reach the novel's total, Werfel nevertheless very accurately conveyed the stakes involved. The Armenians of Musa Dagh really did face almost certain death when the expulsion orders reached them; their only options were to submit meekly to the authorities who wanted them eliminated, or to reluctantly take up their arms and fight. Knowing that Werfel made some dramatic embellishments does not negate the facts of what really happened in 1915.
As for the book, I had mixed impressions overall. It took me a long time to read -- I must admit that between the dates when I started and finished Musa Dagh, I polished off three other novels. (I don't remember if the book actually took me forty days to read, but it'd have been amusing if it had.) That said, it's very readable, especially in the book's latter half when things are moving much more quickly. (Werfel makes use of the trick of telling the reader directly that something awful is about to happen, several pages before the details are revealed; I suppose I should consider it a too-easy way of snagging the reader's attention, but it worked on me.)
The characters, for me, were a mixed bag. I never warmed to chief protagonist Gabriel Bagradian. Especially in the latter half, he felt less like a real person and more like a literary character. Of course, a literary character is exactly what he is, but he's not supposed to seem that way when I'm immersed in the story. I know I wasn't supposed to like the schoolteacher Oskanian, but I actually found him so annoying that I suspect the novel would have been improved if he'd tripped and fallen off a cliff in his very first appearance. And while I appreciate that Gabriel's wife Juliette was a complex character, I found it strange beyond belief that cosseting her in luxurious surroundings on the mountaintop while the siege was going on did not meet with more disapproval among the Armenian families who had to make do with very little.
On the other hand, Gabriel and Juliette's son Stephan was a much more compelling character for me. Not to mention the orphan girl Sato and the apothecary Krikor, both of whom were wonderfully weird and memorable despite both being rather one-dimensional characters.
It's the Orientalism that really drives home that this novel was written in the early 1930s. You feel like Werfel is constantly evaluating these Eastern peoples, both the Armenians and the Turks, with a Western eye. This is generally done unmaliciously, and Werfel had good intentions and a great deal of sympathy for the Armenians, but he was still a Western European describing the 'Eastern' mentality, and the results are going to sit uneasily with a lot of modern-day readers.
Also note that Gabriel Bagradian is an Armenian who lived in France for most of his life and received a French education, and he is the source of the drive and initiative that gets these Armenians out of their homes and up the mountain. One gets the sense that without this Westernized man providing the oomph, the grit and the gumption, the peasants of Musa Dagh would have placidly gone off to their deaths like sheep. But in real life, the Musa Dagh Armenians pulled off their fifty-three (not forty) day resistance without Gabriel Bagradian, who was a fictional character invented years later. In Werfel's defense, Gabriel was probably invented to give his Western European audience, who didn't know an Armenian from an Assyrian, a protagonist they could easily identify with. But the point still stands.
One thing I can say about the depictions of the 'Oriental' characterization is that it affects the Armenians and the Turks equally. What's more, despite a plot which revolves around evil actions instigated by Turks, Werfel is very careful to show that his Turks are not uniformly evil. Occasionally we hear of Turkish peasants cursing the government deportation orders that forcibly remove their Armenian neighbors from their communities. And for every passage that portrays Turks as exotic foreign 'Others', there is one in which Armenians are portrayed in much the same way. My own feeling is that this is not an inherently anti-Turkish book.
Despite its slow pace and the old-fashioned nature of much of its characterization, I'm happy I read it. And I am reminded that I need to learn more about the complex events surrounding the genocide, which I know took on many forms and lasted over a period of many years. It's still a controversial political issue today, and my reaction to a controversial historical issue is to try to really sink my teeth into it, to try to get to terms with it. This book is a start but is not the end.