In 1915, the Ottoman Empire decided to make a scapegoat of its Armenian subjects. It declared all Armenians to be subversive and began “relocating” them to the deserts of Syria. Those who did not die on the way from starvation or mistreatment starved to death upon arrival. In this way, the Turks rid themselves of 1.5 million Armenians, a fact the Turkish government still denies.
In the shadow of the mountain named Musa Dagh, the inhabitants of seven villages decided not to go. After the villages received the news that they would soon be relocated, they sneaked supplies and livestock up into the mountain. Then, the day before the evacuation, they walked up onto Musa Dagh. There, for forty days, they managed to defeat the Turkish army’s attacks until they were rescued by the French navy. Although there were casualties, more than five thousand people were rescued.
The Forty Days of Musa Dagh is considered Franz Werfel’s masterpiece—his fictional account of the event. The main character is Gabriel Bagradian, a wealthy man raised in Europe who has recently returned to this family home after the death of his older brother. He is a reserve army officer, and when he reports to the regional capital to find out why he hasn’t been called up, he hears disquieting rumors.
Back home, he consults with village leaders until the arrival of Aram Tomasian, a Protestant pastor who was relocated with his family from another village. He and his family have been allowed to travel to his father’s village, the authorities thinking it will not affect his fate. But he is able to tell the villagers what is happening during the relocations.
Gabriel has been trying to save his French wife, Juliette, and his son, Stephan. But now he proposes that the villagers ascend Musa Dagh and defend themselves. Only the followers of one church decide to cooperate with the Turks.
At 800+ pages, this novel is very long, but completely absorbing. Werfel’s characters are not heroes but complex people. The novel is suspenseful because even though we know the result for the village as a whole, we don’t know what will happen to the individual characters. The villagers have deserters, loss of their livestock, a fire in their grainery, and other hazards to navigate. I don’t know any other way to explain it but to say this. This novel is fantastic. It is absolutely what I look for in a good novel, where I can immerse myself in another world for a short while.
P. S. If you are interested in reading more about the Armenian genocide, another touching novel is Birds Without Wings by Louis de Bernières.