Wednesday, November 21, 2012

The Forty Days of Musa Dagh

History is captivating.  America's history, of course, is larger than life.  From the heroes of the Revolutionary War to the trappers, cowboys, and explorers that opened the West and from the Greatest Generation's service in World War II to putting a man on the moon, there are stories and stories of people doing what had to be done at great sacrifice.  I have also enjoyed learning the history of some other nations and peoples as I have become acquainted with them thanks to my mission, marriage, and travel.  What has been especially fascinating is learning about the people who were larger than life for other kids growing up and learning about their own countries and histories.  All the better that, as with American history, there are lessons to be learned.

Book cover.In the Turkish extermination of the ethnic Armenian population within Turkey's borders during World War I, German author Franz Werfel thought he saw something the world should learn from.  To bring that message to the forefront, he wrote The Forty Days of Musa Dagh (ISBN: 978-1-56792-407-7).  The novel is a fictionalized account of a home-grown Armenian resistance movement that succeeded in holding off far superior — numerically and technically — Turkish forces for fifty-three days (Werfel's forty days were a reference to the symbolic Biblical number), at which point French and British warships rescued the survivors.  The book chronicles the efforts of (the fictional) Gabriel Bagradian and the villagers as they live off the land, fight valiantly for their freedom, and deal with everyday problems exacerbated by the situation.  The story is, of course, an adventure story, what with the battles, mutiny, illicit love, petty jealousies, special missions, and a wide array of characters from mayors, widows, common criminals, and carpenters to German foreign ministry officers, priests, Turkish military leaders, and French admirals.  Werfel told their stories in an attempt to warn the German people that they were headed into something eerily similar with the Germans playing the role of the Turks and the Jews the Armenians.  Werfel's account ends with one twist of his imagination, leaving Bagradian on his hard-won mountain to face certain death, but death as a free man.

The book was an interesting one, but not one that I finished thinking I thoroughly enjoyed it.  The complicated and contentious subject matter may have something to do with that, but Werfel's religious philosophizing probably had more to do with it.  Sometimes he was just too far out there, and his ideas seemed almost as delusional as his starved crazy characters.  It may or may not be fair to fault him for that — he was a Jew fascinated by Catholicism and religious belief in general; it would be natural for him to explore his beliefs in his writing.  When the book cut away from philosophy and focused on battles, night raids, treachery, escapes, and heated confrontation, it was a good read; when it strayed into philosophy, especially as it concerned the adulterous affair of Bagradian's wife and even some of Bagradian's own thoughts and behavior toward another woman, the book bogged down and was hard to push through (this is also how I felt about Tolstoy's Anna Karenina).  Widely considered to be a modern classic, it was indeed a masterful story, but sticking to the story would have improved the book.

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This work, including all text, photographs, and other original work, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial No Derivatives 3.0 License and is copyrighted © MMXI John Pruess.

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