Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 509
*Antioch. Ancient Turkish city near the northeast corner of the Mediterranean Sea. Although little action unfolds here, a detailed account of a visit there near the beginning of the book is essential to highlighting the life of Levantine Armenian merchants before the Armenian genocide. Antioch’s people lived and prospered in a rich, multiethnic society. In the city’s bustling bazaar Armenians, Greeks, and Syrians surge past one another, wearing European dress but readily identifiable by their different headgear. Kurds, Circassians, and Bedouins stand out in their vibrant tribal wear, their women in veils and capes. Fragrant herbs blend with the aroma of simmering mutton fricassees, while the sounds of Muslim prayers mingle with the cries of street vendors. Prosperous Armenian traders tend their shops and stalls. They are the bankers, carpet merchants, and makers of the exotic jewelry that adorns all the women.
*Musa Dagh (mew-sah dag). Mountain in eastern Turkey to which Armenian villagers retreat to resist the government’s deportation order; the mountain becomes their ark of salvation. The view from the mountain peak is dramatic, with the Mediterranean Sea to one side and the ancient city of Antioch, dear to Armenian Christian tradition, lying to the other. On this holy mountain, Armenians make their stand for life, freedom, and the survival of their apostolic Christian church. Before their eventual rescue by Allied ships, they must endure trench warfare against the vastly more numerous Turks, along with disease and near starvation. Although the historical siege of Musa Dagh lasted fifty-three days, the novel reduces it to a more symmetrical forty days, thus linking the resistance thematically with the many biblical events that transpired over the same mystical length of time.
Despite his occasional use of artistic license, Franz Werfel based his narrative on authenticated documentation of the siege, and his book has been recognized as a tribute to the Armenians who suffered in the calamity, as well as a celebration of the survival of the Armenian nation itself. When the novel became a best seller, its success alerted millions of readers to what has been called the “forgotten genocide.”
*Armenian villages. Seven villages around the base of Musa Dagh figuring into the novel have exotic names: Yoghonoluk, Wakef, Kheder, Begt, Azir, Bitias, and Kebussiye. In contrast to the cosmopolitan ambiance of Antioch’s bazaar, life in the villages faithfully adheres to Armenian custom and style. On Sunday evenings, after religious observance, the streets are filled with people happy to be alive, old women gossiping, young mothers exchanging advice, and girls teasing their suitors. The Turkish peril seems vague and far away, while the orchards and vineyards flourish and the sound of the tar, the Armenian guitar, fills the streets. The skilled crafts of the villagers demonstrate Armenian energy and creativity: silks, woodwork, religious carvings from ivory. These villages provide glimpses of what Paradise must have been like, Werfel seems to suggest. For here, along this very Syrian coast, are found the four rivers near which tradition locates the Garden of Eden.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 214
Jungk, Peter Stephan. “Die vierzig Tage des Musa Dagh.” In Franz Werfel: An Austrian Writer Reassessed, edited by Lothar Huber. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1989. A dramatic, well-detailed account of the genesis of the novel. Portrays Werfel in a positive light. Jungk scripted and directed a film on Werfel for German television.
Keith-Smith, Brian. “The Concept of ‘Gemeinschaft’ in the Works of Franz Werfel and Lothar Schreyer.” In Franz Werfel: An Austrian Writer Reassessed, edited by Lothar Huber. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1989. Elaborates on the importance of community in Werfel’s work. Knowledge of German not essential but would be helpful.
Michaels, Jennifer. Franz Werfel and the Critics. Columbia, S.C.: Camden House, 1994. Identifies aspects of Werfel’s work that have attracted critical interest. Also shows how various trends in criticism have shaped Werfel’s reputation as a writer. A clear and comprehensive presentation.
Steiman, Lionel B. Franz Werfel: The Faith of an Exile from Prague to Beverly Hills. Ontario, Canada: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1985. A penetrating analysis of Werfel’s political and theological development in historical context. Generally critical of his faith and work.
Wagener, Hans. Understanding Franz Werfel. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1993. Assesses Werfel’s work from a literary as well as historical perspective. Readable and concise.
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