June 2012

Matt McGregor

fiction

The Forty Days of Musa Dagh by Franz Werfel, translated by Geoffrey Dunlap and James Reidel

It's the fate of every review of The Forty Days of Musa Dagh to wax historical, so let's crack into it. The novel, which tells of five Armenian villages that resisted the Ottoman Empire's attempts to exterminate them, was first published in Germany in 1933, eight years after Mrs. Dalloway and five years before Kristallnacht. In 1934 it was banned, and then burned, by the Nazis. That year, the English translation was released in America with the Book of the Month Club. In 1982, it was made into a film (which, for the record, averages 3.8 stars of out 10 on IMDB. I haven't seen it).

It goes on. On January 23 of this year, the French government passed legislation declaring it illegal to deny the existence of the Armenian genocide. The Turkish government responded by cutting some diplomatic and economic ties; it remains Turkish government policy to deny that anything like a "genocide" occurred. Two months ago, the publishing house David R. Godine released a partially new translation of the novel, adding a few hundred pages of exposition cut from the 1934 version. As a deliberate provocation, Godine decided to publish the novel on April 24, a date known by Armenians as Genocide Memorial Day.

One of these things just doesn't belong here -- and that thing is Mrs. Dalloway. For better and worse, The Forty Days of Musa Dagh finds itself caught between two kinds of history: textbook history, with its leaders and wars and atrocities, and quiet, strange literary history. The novel is both jarringly prescient about Nazi Germany and wildly out of step with its modernist contemporaries. After finishing Werfel's novel, you might reasonably assume that Ulysses was a hundred years away.

So, Musa Dagh is a novel in the way Rob Roy is a novel. It's gripping and flabby, creepy and trashy, worthy and somewhat racist. Werfel tends to pivot between the nightmare of history and the pleasantries of village life; where the two intersect, this novel sparks and spits with vigor and outrage.

The Forty Days of Musa Dagh begins and ends with Gabriel Bagradian, a rich Armenian who has been living in Paris with his gloriously French wife, Juliette. After the death of his brother, Gabriel returns with his family to his ancestral home in rural Turkey. While they are there, war breaks out. As Gabriel introduces his young son to village life, the government declares a state of emergency, and with it comes a series of anti-Armenian decrees. Led by Talat Pasha, the Ottoman authorities, using techniques like torture, murder, and rape, provoke "incidents" of rebellion, which they then use to justify mass deportations. 

As Werfel tells it, Armenian property was immediately claimed by the state. The healthy men were taken for slave labor, and then executed when their work was complete; the rest were marched through the desert, where they were either starved to death or raped and killed by wandering gangs. Werfel describes such forced deportation as a "moving concentration camp." As one character puts it, "Everywhere the face of a rapist... thirty different faces... Bubbles of spittle broke on the tumid lips."

This was written several years before the Nazi camps. Werfel managed to publish the book in Germany in 1933, and the Nazis only banned it after the Turkish government complained. Yet the references to the impending nightmare are clear and present. In the middle of the book lies a dramatized version of a real interview between Enver Pasha and a German protestant missionary, Johannes Lepsius. Despite the best efforts of Herr Lepsius, Enver Pasha persists in making his horridly ironic case:   

Germany, luckily, has no internal enemies. But let's suppose that, in other circumstances, she found herself with traitors in her midst -- Alsace-Lorrainers, shall we say, or Poles, or Social Democrats, or Jews -- and in far greater numbers than at present. Would you, Herr Lepsius, not endorse any and every means of freeing your country, which is fighting for its life against a whole world of enemies without, from those within?

The interview ends with Enver's brutal admission: "There can be no peace... between human beings and plague germs."

This is all very creepy. But Musa Dagh does not, thank god, morbidly document the extermination of a million Armenians. Instead, Musa Dagh celebrates the armed resistance of five Armenian villages, led by our man Gabriel Bagradian. As the Ottoman army moves in, Bagradian begins to plan. He gathers statistics on the population, their livestock, their weapons. He maps the hills. When the army arrives, he convinces the local people to march into the hills. Fortifications are built. A militia forms. Speeches are made:

I know how I mean to die -- not like a defensive sheep, not on the road to Deir ez Zor, not amid the filth of the deportation camp, not from hunger, and not from a stinking epidemic -- no! I mean to die on the threshold of my own house, with a gun in my hand.

And again:

I'm a woman and I speak for all the women here. Many of us have suffered. My heart has failed me again and again. It's a long time since I've cared whether I die or not... But I'm not going to die on the highroad. I'm not going to lie out rotting in the fields. Not I!

You can almost hear the strings. If this all sounds rather manipulative, that's because it is: Werfel was trying to write a blockbuster and a blockbuster he wrote.

Without descending into the swamp of pop-literary debate, we might as well say it: this is a genre novel. Despite the faux-ethnography, the philosophizing, and the admirable sincerity of the project, some bits of The Forty Days of Musa Dagh will make you wince. There is the occasional portentous flourish, which a kind reader can be trusted to skim ("as time flows into eternity," "the light was... like the light that fires a whole people"). And at times, the novel reads like a treatment for a movie. This, for example, is how Werfel likes to end his chapters:

But Gabriel paced the room, breathing heavily. He struck the wall with the flat of his hand, suddenly, so hard that plaster came flaking down. "Pray then, Ter Haigasun" -- and still like an officer giving an order -- "pray… But God's going to need help."

And again:

"So now I've put my life in your hands, Effendi," the mukhtar moaned as he opened the door again for his visitor. Gabriel answered him without turning around, "Perhaps you really have, Thomas Kebussyan."

It must also be said that for a book resisting genocide, Werfel embraces and repeats the most basic clichés of European ethnography. I guess it can't be helped. But there really is a truckload of racism in Musa Dagh, couched in what we might fudge as "liberal Orientalism." This goes from the harmless ("Armenians are born gardeners"), to the heavy-handed ("Armenian eyes are always big, shocked big by a thousand years of seeing painful things"), to the squirmy ("Armenians, in contrast to Arabs and the other din-makers of the East, are quietly reticent in public"; "The Armenian of the mountains, the quintessence of their kind, is arrogant and impatient"). We are told that Armenian children lack the "purposeful concentration, the planned logical thought" of European boys; they are more like "a pack of excited young animals, rushing here and there to no end."

Had enough? Werfel hasn't. Throughout Musa Dagh, Werfel presents a sophisticated, ossified, world-weary Europe, set against a libidinous, vibrant, inscrutable East. As Gabriel puts it, "This certainty of systematic thought -- though as he had learned it in Europe -- raised him far above these dully resigned prisoners of fate." The choice lines are reserved for his wife, Juliette, a delicate Parisian aesthete. As she says to Iskuhi, who managed to survive one of the death marches, and who is one of the novel's more extraordinary characters, "You've never had a Racine or a Voltaire. And you have no Catulle Mendes, no Pierre Loti. Have you read anything by Pierre Loti, ma petite?"

Enough, Werfel. Enough! To be fair, The Forty Days of Musa Dagh has a few nice lines and a few great scenes. Perhaps the highest praise we can give the book is that it drags our eyes beyond its gaudy flourishes and occasional clunks. For the first few hundred pages, my edition is peppered with mocking graffiti; for the last four hundred, the thing is clean. A book like this will always get points for its serious connection to atrocity, but Werfel, who was clearly well versed in the techniques of popular storytelling, didn't want to make a sacred artifact. He didn't want quiet salutes and whispers of respect. He wanted to write an adventure story -- and he wrote a bloody good one.

The Forty Days of Musa Dagh by Franz Werfel, translated by Geoffrey Dunlap and James Reidel
Verba Mundi Books
ISBN-13: 978-1567924077
918 pages