A moral compass links best of 2015 reading

When you read as many novels as I do—I read and reviewed more then 75 novels for Great Penformances this year—there’s a tendency to become jaded.

Plots get to feel familiar.

Characters seem to reappear in different outfits in different novels.

And the point of it all often is hardly worth the words expended in stating it.

As a reflected on the novels I reviewed here in 2015, four stood out as being distinctly different from the rest:

Although their subjects cover a wide range, each has the same central theme: the importance of having a moral compass.

The Ambassador

The Ambassador is a story about the politics of American involvement in the Vietnam War. The American Ambassador to South Vietnam says what his government pays him to say. In so doing, he assures the war will drag on, body bag after body bag, for years.

His career crisis underscores the Ambassador’s personal crisis: He had depended on his late wife’s faith to provide him with a moral compass. Without her, he can’t locate North.

Something of Value

Something of Value also is set against the backdrop of a war, this one between the white settlers of Kenya and the black guerrilla army, the Mau Mau.

The white colonialists have prohibited the blacks from practicing their culture and religion, but the tepid Christianity they demanded Kenyans substitute for traditional ways provide neither white or black with a moral compass.

The 40 Days of Musa Dagh

The 40 Days of Musa Dagh is a story about the events called, except in Turkey, the Aremnian genocide.

In 1915, the Ottoman Empire, part of Central Powers (which also included Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Bulgaria), ordered Armenians within its borders to the Syrian deserts.

Only a few Armenian communities resisted.

As World War I began, some 5,000 Armenian from the Mediterranean mountains due west of Aleppo, Syria, took up positions on Musa Dagh (“Mount Moses”) to repel the Turkish military.

They held out for 53 days (Werfel calls it 40 days, which sounds more biblical) before the Western Allies evacuated the Musa Dagh survivors by ship.

In Werfel’s novel, as in history, the moral question is about the responsibility of uninvolved observers. Without a moral compass, bystanders to brutality waver over their options until the possibility for action is gone.

The Garden of Allah

The Garden of Allah brings moral issues down to the level of marriage.

Both marriage partners had had strong faith at one time. Domini’s faith dwindled; Boris rejected his.

The central question of the novel and the marriage is whether the individual puts his or her needs above those of the spouse. The question can only be answered by a muscular faith in obedience to the moral compass.

You or I may not approve of the direction chosen by the characters in some of these novels. Yet each novel shows the value of having a moral in a world that sets its course by opinion polls.

©2015 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Musa Dagh began history that repeats itself

I rarely have a problem narrowing my choices for best novels of a year to three. The 1935 bestseller list, however, contains four very fine novels, each of which deserves to be one of my top picks.

Today I’ll devote to my topmost top pick from 1935, Franz Werfel’s The Forty Days of Musa Dagh. Tomorrow I’ll talk about the other three, all of which are by woman authors.

painting of Armenian genocide is background for title 'The Forty Days of Musa Dagh'

It’s hard today to imagine a time when there was no word to mean the premeditated, systematic liquidations of one racial, religious, ethnic, or national group by another, but until late in World War II there was no such word.

Surprisingly, when Raphael Lemkin coined the word genocide sometime in 1943-44, he wasn’t talking about the Nazi extermination of Jews but about the slaughter of Armenians by the Ottoman government during World War I.

One hundred years ago, there were about 2 million Armenians living in Turkey. By the early 1920s, three-quarters of those Armenians were dead. Many of those who survived had been forcibly removed from the country.

Most of the world uses Lemkin’s term to describe those events, but even today in Turkey it is illegal to call it genocide.

Turkey  fought in World War I on the side of Germany and Austrio-Hungary. The Turks declared Jihad against Christians, which included Armenians.

To keep Armenians in the Caucasus from supporting its Russian enemies, Turkey began “resettling” Armenians in great waves of refugees, like the refugees we see  today fleeing the Islamic State.

News of the atrocities reached the west in 1915. Armin T. Wegner, a German second-lieutenant, took clandestine photos of Armenians in deportation camps in the Syrian desert, smuggled them to the US through Germany.

Of all the Armenian villages whose residents the Turks ordered to move, only four organized to oppose the order. One of those was Musa Dagh, the Mountain of Moses, located near the Mediterranean Sea, west of the ancient city of Turkish Antioch.

Alone of the defiant Armenia villages, Musa Dagh was saved from slaughter by the Western Allies.

Franz Werfel turned the story of Musa Dagh’s fight into a novel. Published in 1933, The Forty Days of Musa Dagh became a bestseller, which drew so much attention to Werfel, who was Jewish, that he was forced to flee Vienna for France.

(At one point, Werfel and his wife took refuge in Lourdes, which inspired him to write The Song of Bernadette, which also became a bestseller.)

The Forty Days of Musa Dagh was banned in Germany and countries it occupied, but copies still circulated throughout World War II. In ghettos, the novel was read as a call to fight the Nazis.

The characters’ individuality, memorable though they are, seems to recede as the novel moves to its conclusion. Werfel leaves readers with an inspiring sense of people united in a cause.

Despite its enormous popularity, Musa Dagh was never turned into a movie. MGM wanted to do a film, but the Turkish government protested. The film was never made.

A updated version of Werfel’s novel was released this year, the centennial of start of the Armenian genocide. The new version of the novel, like the events it commemorates, is as contemporary as tweets from Tikrit.

Cheers and tears for The Forty Days of Musa Dagh

Despite its whopping length and gory topic — the Armenian genocide of 1915 —The Forty Days of Musa Dagh kept me riveted.

And it left me wanting to read the novel again to see what I missed.

Map of locale where Amenian genocide took place.
Map of locale of “The Forty Days of Musa Dagh” inside the cover of early hardback editions.

The Forty Days of Musa Dagh by Franz Werfel

Trans. Geoffrey Dunlop. Modern Library, Random House, 1934. 817 pages. My grade: A.


Gabriel Bagradian comes back to Armenia with his French wife and son. While he waits to be recalled to active duty in the Turkish army, Gabriel revisits his childhood haunts.

Sensing anti-Armenian feeling, Gabriel prepares to move the local population to Musa Dagh and fight from the mountain’s strategic position. He wins over the church leaders who rally the people.

Some 5,000 men, women, and children move to Musa Dagh and dig in, expecting to fight to the death.

The feisty Armenians don’t do so well at preparing to live.

A rainstorm ruins their bread and flour, leaving them nothing to eat but meat.

Jealousies and grievances fester.

Unsupervised teenage boys run wild.

Gabriel saves most of his people at an enormous cost to himself.

Franz Werfel writes formidable page-long paragraphs. Yet despite that, his prose flows, even in translation.

Werfel makes you care about the Armenians.

As a bonus, you’ll get insights into Christian-Islamic issues behind headlines on the evening news.

© 2015 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Song of Bernadette falls on deaf ears

Sanctuary of Lourdes
Sanctuary of Lourdes

Fleeing the Nazis as France collapsed, Franz Werfel took refuge in Lourdes. When he reached safety in America, he wrote a fictionalized biography of the peasant girl whose visions brought fame to Lourdes and sainthood to herself. That background is the most interesting part of The Song of Bernadette.

In 1858 Bernadette Soubirous, a dull-witted girl from the poorest strata of French society, is preparing for her first communion. While gathering firewood with some other girls, she sees a vision of a beautiful lady. The vision has scarcely faded before news gets around that the Virgin Mary appeared to Bernadette, though Bernadette says the lady never identified herself.

When a neighbor claims her son was miraculously healed by water from a spring Bernadette unearthed at the lady’s direction, church and state suspect Bernadette and her family are hatching some scheme to defraud the public.

The public, however, supports Bernadette.

Unable to disprove the healings or find any fraud, the Church hustles Bernadette into a convent where she spends the rest of her life.

Readers will find Bernadette as dull as did the 19th century clergy and politicos who interrogated her. Worse, they’ll find Werfel’s ponderous, page-long paragraphs a real bore.

The Song of Bernadette
Franz Werfel
Trans. Ludwig Lewisohn
Viking Press, 1942
575 pages
1942 Bestseller #1
My Grade: C-

Photo Credit: Sanctuary of Lourdes 1 (2008) Uploaded by optitech http://www.sxc.hu/photo/1057405

© 2012 Linda Gorton Aragoni