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Howitzers on the HillNeal Ascherson
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Vol. 40 No. 5 · 8 March 2018

Howitzers on the Hill

Neal Ascherson

4077 words
The Forty Days of Musa Dagh 
by Franz Werfel, translated by Geoffrey Dunlop, revised by James Reidel.
Penguin, 912 pp., £10.99, January 2018, 978 0 241 33286 3
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In a corner​ of the eastern Mediterranean, where the coast of Anatolia turns south towards Syria, a mountain massif rises by the sea. Its name in Ottoman times was Musa Dagh, the Moses Mountain, and its summit forms a high plateau called the Damlayik. Just over a century ago, as the genocide of the Armenians in the Ottoman Empire was reaching its climax, four thousand Armenian villagers living round the foot of the mountain left their houses. Carrying their household belongings and all the food they could find, more than eight hundred families set out one night in 1915 to climb Musa Dagh. On the plateau, they began to dig trenches, and to distribute the few firearms they had managed to hide from Turkish searches. Elsewhere, one and a half million Armenians were being herded into endless death-march columns, heading east to perish by bullet, bayonet or starvation in the desert. But the men and women on Musa Dagh had decided to fight.

Why they did so, when others submitted, is not entirely clear. Neighbouring villages, just across the Orontes river, had decided that it was safer to obey the deportation order, and when the Musa Dagh people received their summons to move, some powerful voices – including a local Protestant minister – said it would be madness to resist. Two things seem to have changed their minds. One was the arrival of another minister, Dikran Andreasian, who told them he had witnessed atrocities in the nearby town of Zeitun as Turkish militias fell on the Armenian inhabitants and forced them to march eastwards. The other was that on Musa Dagh there was a chance – a very slim chance – that a passing foreign ship might see and rescue them.

The first attack on the mountain by Turkish regular troops was beaten off in early August. The Defence Committee, led by young Moses Der Kalousdian, had constructed formidable positions and was now strengthened with captured rifles. A few days later, two thousand soldiers and armed police arrived from nearby Antakya and camped near the summit, preparing for a final assault the next morning. But the Armenians attacked them in darkness; the Turks fled, suffering heavy casualties and losing even more weapons and equipment.

This defeat led to a change of tactics. Musa Dagh was put under siege, and artillery was brought up to bombard the Armenian defences and their encampment on the central plateau. A third attempt to storm the mountain began. Defeat and death for the villagers, sooner or later, now seemed inevitable. But before they were cut off, the defenders had managed to send out messages to possible allies in the outside world (it was the second year of the First World War, in which Turkey was allied with Germany) and had unfurled two enormous banners on the sea-cliffs. One was inscribed ‘Christians in Distress!’ The other bore a huge red cross.

On 10 September, after several weeks of siege, the French armoured cruiser Guichen spotted the banners and moved to investigate. After contacting the defenders, the ship used its heavy guns to drive back the Turkish advance and sent for the rest of the Anglo-French naval squadron based in Cyprus. The surviving Armenian families, weak with hunger, exposure and disease, were taken on board and delivered safely to camps in Egypt. Der Kalousdian trained as a doctor and became a respected figure in Lebanon, where he died at the age of 99. As a British naval officer said long afterwards, it was the only happy ending in the whole Armenian tragedy.

Some 15 years later, when this episode had been almost forgotten by everyone except the Armenians, it was taken up by the poet, playwright and novelist Franz Werfel. He transformed it into The Forty Days of Musa Dagh, the enormous, grand-manner novel which many considered his finest work. Werfel, who died in Californian exile in 1945, is now in the ‘almost forgotten’ league himself, in spite of being one of the most celebrated and successful writers in German-speaking Europe between the wars. The oldest readers in Britain and America may still remember The Song of Bernadette, that syrupy but irresistibly powerful novel about Bernadette Soubirous and her visions of the Madonna at Lourdes. Werfel published it in 1941, after escaping from Nazi Europe, and in translation it became a publishing legend, with more than a million copies sold in its first two years and the US government buying 50,000 for distribution to the armed forces. The movie version by 20th Century Fox reduced the American continent to tears, and trembling fingers all over the US pinned Norman Rockwell’s painting of Jennifer Jones as Bernadette to their walls.

Werfel was born into a prosperous Jewish family in Prague, then still in the Habsburg Empire. As a young man publishing his first poems, he sat in cafés with Max Brod, Franz Kafka, Egon Erwin Kisch, Milena Jesenská and Willy Haas. He served in the Austro-Hungarian army in the First World War, ending up in Vienna, where he graduated to the intellectual hothouse of the Café Central and, in 1915, was introduced to Alma Mahler. Alma had been the wife of Gustav Mahler and the lover of Oskar Kokoschka and was now married to Walter Gropius. Disdainfully anti-Semitic as she was, she had an acquisitive eye for unrecognised genius in need of a mother figure. Her diary recorded a ‘fat bow-legged Jew’ with ‘thick lips … liquid slit-eyes’ and fingers yellow with nicotine: in short, quite irresistible except for his silly ‘babble’ about socialism and love for humanity. They stayed together for the rest of his life.

On a journey through the Middle East, Werfel and Alma visited Damascus, where they met a group of Armenian orphans working at the looms in a carpet factory. Werfel was overwhelmed with pity and anger as, for the first time, he learned about the Armenian genocide from those who had survived it. When they travelled on, across Syria and Lebanon, he set himself to question other survivors and collect their stories – among them the story of Musa Dagh. It seized him as the possible subject for an epic fiction, and he spent the next few years researching not only the history of the massacres and the siege but the whole background of Armenian and Ottoman culture, social structure and religion.

The novel finally appeared in 1933, when Werfel’s other books were already being burned by the Nazis. But it somehow stayed available, in braver German bookshops, until all the remaining copies were called in and destroyed by the regime in February 1934. The title, The Forty Days of Musa Dagh, in itself said something about Werfel’s approach to historical accuracy. The siege in fact lasted for at most 36 days, fewer by some accounts. But Werfel fancied the resonance of ‘forty days and forty nights’: it evoked the duration of the Flood, of Israel’s sojourn in the wilderness and of the retreat of Moses to Mount Sinai.

The novel is carried by a large cast of invented characters, all given actions and significances that have little or no resemblance to those of the actual figures on the mountain in 1915. Werfel’s hero, the man who eventually inspires and leads the defence, is Gabriel Bagradian, a young ‘assimilated’ Armenian from a local family which has become wealthy. He has been brought up in Paris, with little memory of Armenian rural life and a poor command of the language, but has returned to his native village at the moment when, unknown to him, the great deportations are being planned in Istanbul. With Gabriel come his sophisticated French wife, Juliette, and their young son, Stephan.

At first, Juliette is charmed by the place but soon, as Gabriel mingles with the villagers, riddles of identity arise:

Had he struck root here? … Armenian! In him an ancient blood, an ancient people. But why did his thoughts more often speak French than Armenian – as for instance now? (And yet that morning he had felt a distinct thrill of pleasure when his son answered him in Armenian.) Blood and people. To be honourable. Were not these mere empty concepts? Human beings in every age have strewn the bitter bread of existence with a different spice of ideas, only to make it still more unpalatable … nowadays he saw so much through Juliette’s eyes. So not only in the world was he an alien, but within himself, the instant he came into contact with other people. Jesus Christ! Couldn’t one be an individual … ?

Overhearing Turkish officials muttering in a bathhouse, Gabriel realises that – under the pretext of wartime security – something terrible is being planned against his people. He consults a benevolent old Muslim sage, the Agha Rifaat Bereket, who confirms his fears (‘I only know that the atheists in Istanbul need national hatred for their purposes’). The agha himself is going to Istanbul to plead for the Armenians, and it’s significant that Werfel, in his notes for the novel, reminded himself not to ‘polemicise’ unfairly against Turks. They must sometimes be in the right if his narrative is to be convincing. ‘Caution. The Turks cannot appear to be all too dumb and militarily godforsaken. All their actions must be well-founded.’

Guessing at the approaching catastrophe, Gabriel urges Juliette to leave the country with Stephan while she can, and to divorce him. She refuses, but he secretly prepares the passes and documents which will allow her safe passage to a port. Next, he goes to the local priest, Ter Haigasun, who gives him more grim news about Armenian arrests and executions in Istanbul but advises him not to tell local people of the danger: ‘We are helpless. We must bow our heads.’ The ‘European’ side of Gabriel is outraged by this resignation, ‘this damned East’: something energetic must be done. Then he goes to the church square, where a crowd has collected around a ragged, exhausted group of refugees who have escaped from the round-up at Zeitun (the modern Suleymanli). One of them is a Protestant pastor, Aram Tomasian. Another is his badly injured daughter, Iskuhi. They tell the horrified villagers the fate of their town: an attempt at defiance, and then brutal onslaughts as they were driven into columns to begin the endless, shuffling march eastward. Iskuhi’s arm was dislocated by a soldier trying to rape her.

Werfel now breaks away from his Musa Dagh narrative to describe a meeting in Istanbul. Dr Johannes Lepsius, a German pastor, has been conceded an interview with Enver Pasha, a leader of the Young Turk revolution in 1908 and now the most powerful figure in the Ottoman Empire. The interest of this long chapter, titled ‘Interlude of the Gods’, is that it is based on recorded fact: Werfel’s account of the interview is based on the report written afterwards by Lepsius himself. He was one of many German, American and other witnesses, some of them missionaries, who watched the genocide developing across Anatolia, reported it to the world and protested valiantly to the Turkish authorities.

When Werfel’s novel was published, Hitler was beginning to consolidate his power within Germany and to isolate the Jews. Prophetically, Werfel makes Enver ask: ‘Would you consider it so cruel if, for the sake of victory, all dangerous elements in the population were simply to be herded together and sent packing into distant, uninhabited territory?’ Lepsius retorts that if his government ‘behaved unjustly, unlawfully, inhumanly … to our fellow countrymen of a different race, a different persuasion, I should renounce Germany at once and go to America.’ But Enver, distant and smooth, is not impressed. ‘There can be no peace,’ he tells Lepsius, ‘between human beings and plague germs.’

It would be six years before Hitler would ask his cronies: ‘After all, who talks today about the extermination of the Armenians?’ But nobody in Germany in 1933 could fail to pick up Werfel’s scarcely hidden allusion to a coming doom for Europe’s Jews, or to recognise in Enver’s ‘plague germ’ image the language of Nazi propaganda. Much later in the novel, a second digression imagines Lepsius invited to a secret gathering of a dervish sect, fundamentalist Muslims who loathe the ‘secular’ dictatorship of the Young Turks – ‘the shabbiest parvenu scum’. They condemn what is going on, not because they love the infidel Armenians but because the type of ethnic nationalism that is destroying them is ‘a foreign poison which comes from Europe’. One speaker contrasts the magnanimity of Mehmet the Conqueror, who overthrew Byzantium but set up Greek and Armenian patriarchates, with Christian behaviour in Spain: ‘You drove out the Muslims, who had made their homes there, into the sea by the thousands and burned them at the stake.’

Back in the shadow of Musa Dagh, Gabriel discovers a secret cache of rifles in the graveyard and works out a plan for resistance. At a series of stormy meetings, a majority of the villagers decide to fight. The gloomy priest Ter Haigasun changes his mind and is chosen as leader, while Gabriel – who has army experience – is appointed to head the defence. First, the men who have weapons go up the mountain to drill and train, while supplies are brought from the valley below on mules or human backs. Finally, after a Turkish raid on Gabriel’s house and the nearby village, in which the houses are sacked and he himself knocked down and threatened with death, the rest of the community escapes by night to the summit. Gabriel’s son Stephan, now 13, defies his mother and refuses to be evacuated. Holding their exit papers, Juliette finds herself unable to face separation from her son as well as her husband and decides to stay too.

By now, Werfel has introduced a large cast of characters, whose peculiarities, appearance and inner conflicts fill many pages. There is Apothecary Krikor, a self-taught pedant who lugs his enormous library to the hilltop. There is the sardonic schoolteacher Oskanian, Sato the mad nature-girl, Bedros Altouni the patient village doctor and ancient Nunik, ‘chieftainess of magic healers and conjuring women’. Werfel’s way of introducing Nunik offers a flavour of his terrific, all-stops-out style at its best: ‘Nunik held between her hard, stringy thighs a black lamb, no doubt strayed from the herds, and she was slitting its throat open from underneath. It seemed a very workmanlike slit, done with the quietest of hands, while her lips parted under the horrible lupus-eaten nose from over a gleam of magnificently youthful teeth.’

Not all the characters lurch towards the reader like that. It seems that the more seriously the author takes them, as principal actors whose moral twists and turns impel the drama on Musa Dagh, the blurrier the impression they leave: they drown under the floods of narration of what is going on in their heads. Even Gabriel, vivid in the first chapters as a voyager between identities, passes out of focus as he becomes a heroic man of battle tortured by guilt and pity for his wife and son. Two exceptions are a pair of ominously opaque men whose heads the reader isn’t invited to enter: both in consequence become memorable. One is the sinister Sarkis Kilikian, ‘the Russian’, who as a child saw his family butchered in an earlier Armenian pogrom and then became a slave in the Baku oilfields. He fights alongside Gabriel, but in the end tries to betray the whole defence. The other is Gonzague Maris, a cynical journalist who seems to be Greek but holds an American passport. He joins the garrison, useful for his skill with words and knowledge of the outside world and its politics.

But he too will betray. In the midst of the siege he seduces Juliette, lonely and desperate as she realises that her husband thinks of nothing but his Armenian destiny. Gonzague then escapes to safety on his own: Juliette cannot go with him; she has contracted typhus and lies delirious in her tent, waited on by the crippled Iskuhi who – in turn – has begun a passionate but platonic love affair with Gabriel. It’s rich melodrama, at which Werfel excels, but at outrageous length. Juliette’s illness and treatment (described in every clinical and pharmaceutical detail), the crises of her fever, the paroxysms of guilt or fury exploding in and around her, reel on and on like the dying scenes in La Dame aux camélias until this reader, at least, grew sick of her. (She doesn’t even die. Werfel gets her better and lets brawny French sailors cart her off to Egypt on a stretcher.)

Another thread, much more straightforward and compelling, is the story of Stephan, who escapes from his parents to take part in the battle – and to join a gang of tough Armenian peasant boys led by the ferocious Haik. They regard Stephan with suspicion, and to prove himself, he leads a crazy raid on the Turkish positions and captures two howitzers. Later in the siege, Haik is sent out by night to make his way across hostile landscapes to Aleppo, with a message pleading for help from the American consul. Disobeying his father once more, Stephan insists on joining Haik, but after days and nights escaping Turkish soldiers and struggling across mountains and swamps, he is too ill and exhausted to carry on. Alone, he heads back towards Musa Dagh. But in the defenders’ native village he is recognised by Turkish officers as Bagradian’s son, and cruelly murdered.

Werfel’s description of Stephan’s journey is utterly vivid and convincing: the reader sees the landscape and the rocks and bushes, stares at the clothes worn by Turkoman peasant women who give Stephan shelter, tastes barley oats in goat’s milk, smells and hears the sucking green swamp that almost devours him, learns how huts and houses are arranged in a village called Ain el Beda on the Aleppo road. Werfel never went to Musa Dagh or the Orontes river valley below it, or to anywhere in this corner of what was once Ottoman Syria. This is a stage set pasted together out of research, other people’s memoirs and Werfel’s imperious imagination, but – like the literary showman he was – he makes it gleam.

He does the same with the military story and the battle scenes. Here Werfel had more solid experience to go on. In the war he had served on the front line in Galicia, as a despatch rider and telephone linesman with an artillery battery, and he revelled in his knowledge of modern weaponry, trench design and infantry tactics. (The guns taken by Stephan and his gang are ‘Austro-Hungarian 10 cm howitzers, of the 1899 pattern, delivered to Turkey by the Skoda factory. The lockers in the caisson of the second gun still contained thirty shells.’) The Forty Days of Musa Dagh contains sustained and brilliantly imagined battle scenes, as the Armenians under Gabriel’s leadership repel Turkish attacks on the mountain. Sarkis Kilikian, ‘the Russian’, builds a row of battering rams that release an avalanche of boulders to sweep away the enemy force toiling up towards the Damlayik summit. Later in the siege, as food runs out and the situation grows desperate, Gabriel sets alight the bushes and then the forest surrounding the summit, creating a protective ring of fire that burns for many days. In the novel, it’s the glare of these flames – visible for many miles out at sea – that is seen by lookouts on the Guichen and reported to the captain, who decides to investigate.

In fact​ or in fiction, it was luck that saved the people on Musa Dagh. The novel has many lugubrious conversations about how the decision to fight must also be a decision to die, but at least to die nobly. Inevitably some readers suggested that Werfel had Masada in mind (the peak where, in 73 ad, Jewish rebels held out against Roman legions and committed mass suicide rather than surrender). That’s possible, but so are parallels from the Hussite risings in the Czech lands where Werfel was born. His attitude to Jewishness was complicated. He thought that Jewish settlers in Palestine should be allowed to carry arms against Arab attacks, and was full-throated in his outrage over Nazi persecution. At the same time, Jewish and Gentile friends were pained and puzzled by his growing attachment to Catholic Christianity. At a party of intellectual exiles in Los Angeles, Thomas Mann attacked him for writing that Bernadette Soubirous had actually ‘seen’ the Virgin. Why hadn’t he written that she ‘imagined’ it? Werfel retorted: ‘Because she saw her!’ They quarrelled for the rest of the afternoon.

Werfel was inclined to write plays and novels à clef, spiced with characters transparently based on friends and enemies. His friend Ernst Polak saw a draft of The Forty Days of Musa Dagh and worried that some of the main Armenian figures were all too recognisable as Jewish colleagues and café regulars they had both known in Prague. Werfel apparently made changes. Nonetheless, although it’s wrong to say that Gabriel Bagradian is Franz Werfel or that Juliette is Alma, the travails of an assimilated intellectual torn between his loyalty to an ancestral people threatened with destruction and his bond to a wife from a quite different culture are unmistakeably Werfel interrogating himself.

The novel had its most intense impact in two worldwide communities that knew what it was to be threatened with extinction. For Armenians, it remains unique and precious: for all its minor inaccuracies, it’s the one work whose urgency and passion keeps the truth of their genocide before the eyes of a world that would prefer to forget about it. For Jewish readers, and not only in Israel, Werfel’s epic about the choice between submitting to the killers or dying on the barricade is still poignant. In several ghettos where the Nazis held Jewish populations before murdering them, Bialystok and Vilnius among others, The Forty Days of Musa Dagh was passed from hand to hand and became the inspiration – almost the manual – for the sacrificial ghetto risings that followed.

The book’s own future was tempestuous. The Turkish government took fright even before it was published, and its diplomats beseeched Nazi Germany to ban it. The Armenian and Jewish communities in Istanbul were intimidated into denouncing it as untrue and unfair, and Turkish pressure groups managed to strangle successive efforts to make a movie out of it, starting with a major MGM project in 1934 (it was to star Clark Gable as Gabriel Bagradian) and continuing through Sylvester Stallone’s attempt to film it in 2007. Notoriously, official Turkish denial of the planned, state-executed genocide (admitting only to some spontaneous massacres committed in the fog of war) persists to this day.

The novel was translated into English by Geoffrey Dunlop in 1934. But Dunlop, a well-respected translator, decided to cut a substantial part of it: passages about Armenian culture and traditions, as well as ‘harrowing’ pages about the rape and slaughter of women and children that he considered too upsetting for British and American readers. Surprisingly, nobody seemed to notice and Werfel himself didn’t protest: non-German editions were of little interest to him apart from their royalties. Now at last a revision of Dunlop’s work and a translation of the excised passages has been made by James Reidel. The American edition carries his long and illuminating introduction, and it’s a great pity Penguin decided to drop this from its edition of a ‘difficult’ novel dense with unfamiliar references.

The main problem for a modern reader is Werfel’s sheer enthusiasm. Every event is slowed up by gaudy pages of descriptive detail; every main character argues his or her dilemmas to death and unwinds every thread of relevant or irrelevant memory into impenetrable tangles. To open War and Peace is to see how different an epic novel can be: Tolstoy, in spite of his book’s scale, is a deftly economic writer who makes effects as much by what he leaves to the imagination as by what he spells out. But this charming, voluble autocrat of Mitteleuropean café tables didn’t do succinct or elegant. ‘Werfel is not the sensitive, mimosalike type, like for instance my friend Franz Kafka,’ Max Brod wrote. ‘His entire life consists of argument. He argues incessantly and with everyone he meets.’ In The Forty Days of Musa Dagh, Werfel wins an argument with the world’s indifference – and wins it crushingly.

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