The Devils of Cardona: Publication Day

Today is the official publication date in the US for my first novel The Devils of Cardona, and it’s a date that I’ve been looking forward to for a long time.  The novel comes out of my earlier history of the expulsion of the Moriscos Blood and Faith: the Purging of Muslim Spain, and its  premise was partly inspired by a vicious outbreak of violence that took place between 1585-1588 in the Crown of Aragon, in the señorio (demesne) of Ribagorza in the Aragonese Pyrenees.

The violence began as the result of perennial tensions between  ‘Old Christian’ shepherds or montañeses and Moriscos (Muslims forcibly converted to Catholicism) who cultivated the estates of the count of Ribagoza.  Every summer – as is still the case throughout the Pyrenees today – shepherds took their animals up into the  high pasturelands, and then brought them back down for the winter.

This annual transhumance often caused the kind of problems you might expect, as shepherds led their animals through cultivated lands and sometimes damaged crops. On occasion there were fights, quarrels and occasional murders.    In Ribagoza however,  the fact that most  of the montañeses were ‘Old Christians’ who hated the Moriscos meant that these tensions soon acquired a religious dimension.

Moriscos in Aragon were often resented by the Old Christian population, partly because they were believed to be collectively engaging in crypto-Islamic worship – a view shared by the Inquisition and the Spanish Crown – and partly because they were regarded as privileged vassals of their Christian lords, who supposedly protected them from the Inquisition in order to exploit them more effectively.

In 1585 an Old Christian shepherd was murdered by Moriscos in the village of Codo.  This incident ignited an eruption of violence that spread across Ribagorza and beyond, as the shepherds transformed themselves in a ravaging bandit army that massacred entire Morisco villages and threatened to ignite an ethnic civil war-cum-crusade across Aragon.

The montañeses were led by an enigmatic and mysterious character called Lupercio Latrás, whose motives have never been made clear, and this is where    the plot thickens, because the señorio of Ribagorza was also the subject of a jurisdictional dispute between the Crown of Castile and the count of Ribagorza.  Some historians believe that Latrás may have been acting as an agent of the Crown, and deliberately inflaming violence in order to destabilise Ribagorza – the better to take it over.   Then there was the fact that relations between Castile and Aragon were already tense, and would ultimately oblige Philip II to invade Aragon during the alteraciones of 1593

The truth has never been revealed and probably never will be, and from a fictional point of view, that’s what makes it interesting.    My novel wasn’t intended to fill in the historical gaps, and it is only very loosely based on this particular episode.  It    also  references other characters from the Morisco tragedy.     I named my main character Mendoza as a tribute to the Mendoza family, some of whose members were far more tolerant of the Moriscos than many of their countrymen, and whose proposals might have resulted in a different outcome to the brutal expulsion of 1609-14.

Cardona is a town in Catalonia, not Aragon, and has nothing to do with Ribagorza.  The character of the Countess of Cardona is a tribute to the Duchess of Cardona, who wrote a moving and impassioned humane appeal to Philip III in 1610 to protest the expulsion of Moriscos from her estates.

Those were some of the building blocks that I used for The Devils of Cardona.    It’s a novel about religion, greed, and politics, which uses the past as a basis for reflection about our present predicament.   When I first started writing it more than two years ago I wasn’t sure if i would even finish it, let alone whether it would be published.  Today it officially enters the world.   To those who are interested, I’ve done an interview for the Signature e-zine about writing fiction and non-fiction and other matters:

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Matthew Carr”s debut novel, the 16th century  comes bounding back to life in a thrilling tale that centers on a string of mysterious murders in a small Spanish town. Investigator Bernardo de Mendoza is sent by the King to smoke out the killer,  only to realize he”s surrounded by a hostile community of Moriscos,  Muslims  forcibly converted to Catholicism and now bitterly living under the watchful eye of Spanish inquisitors.

The Devils of Cardona  dances wonderfully on nails  of suspense, and is richly informed by the research of Carr, a journalist and historian, whose  2009 book  Blood and Faith  uncovers the  real-life  expulsion of Muslims from Spain during the Spanish Inquisition.  For Signature, Carr discusses his writing and reading habits, the necessities of  patience in writing (“because producing good writing is sometimes nothing more than a struggle against one”s own stupidity and inadequacy”), and he channels his favorite English teacher in offering some sound writing advice: “the only way to write [is]  to abandon oneself to it completely.”

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You can read the rest of the interview here:

Karl Schlögel’s Moscow

There have been many books, both fiction and non-fiction, written about Stalin’s purges, but there is nothing quite like Karl  Schlögel’s monumental Moscow 1937, which I’ve just finished.  As the title suggests, the book is a portrait of Moscow in the year in which the Stalinist terror reached a horrific pitch of self-destruction on the 20th anniversary of the Russian revolution.

That year the Stalinist tyranny arrested 2 million people, of whom just under 700,000 were murdered and 1.3 million deported to labour camps and forced labour projects, where tens of thousands of them died.   This horrific harvest was a consequence of the ‘mass operations’ carried out by the regime to eliminate a Trotskyist conspiracy that existed entirely in the imagination  of the regime itself.

Taking his cue from Bulgakov’s hallucinatory allegory The Master and Margarita,  Schlögel meticulously assembles a vast panoramic portrait of a city and a society locked into a ‘bacchanal of destruction’  in which ecstatic  orchestrated pseudo-revolutionary spectacles, hyper-modernisation and the constant threat of extreme violence coincided with show trials, collective explosions of xenophobic hatred and the gratuitous mass murder of tens of thousands of entirely innocent people.

This was the world that the American philosopher Susan Buck-Morss evoked in Dreamworld and Catastrophe: The Passing of Mass Utopia in East and West, but  Schlögel achieves his own ‘chronotope’ of Moscow in 1937 through an extraordinarily-detailed montage, brilliantly drawing on a vast range of mostly untouched material.

Literary and political diaries, maps of the city,  burial records at the Butovo shooting range where the NKVD murdered most of its victims, childrens literature,  utopian city plans, geological congresses,  architectural projects, eyewitness descriptions of gymnastic processions and sports parades,  accounts of polar expeditions, Central Committee plenums, censuses, jazz concerts – all these different activities coincided with the year of terror and all of them are part of Schlögel’s portrait.

These materials are brought to life through Schlögel’s own astute and consistently insightful analysis of a society that believed itself to be hurtling towards a brave new revolutionary future even as it annihilated its own citizens by the tens and thousands.  The sheer scale of the killing and the range of the NKVD’s victims was staggering.  It included leading party members, veteran revolutionaries, film directors, writers, members of particular nationalities and ethnic groups. exiled members of the Comintern, peasants and workers, priests and ‘old believers’, mountaineers and members of the NKVD itself.

Much of this is already known,  but  Schlögel brilliantly shows how this atmosphere of witchhunts and systematic mass murder coincided with mass political manipulation on an unprecedented scale, with orchestrated collective spectacles, and an endless flow of slogans and images that concealed the essential barbarity of what was taking place, under a regime that proclaimed the Soviet Union as the embodiment of the hopes of humanity even as it ripped itself to shreds.  

The result is a masterpiece of historical reconstruction and remembrance of a dire period of Russian history in which human life became essentially worthless, and survival was entirely dependent on the maniacal whims of a paranoid and all-powerful regime that was able to murder its victims with absolute impunity.  A terrifying, illuminating, and absolutely essential book.

Fortress Europe Book Launch

Next week sees the publication of the UK paperback edition of Fortress Europe: Inside the War Against Immigration, and I’ve got a couple of events coming up in London to mark the occasion.  On    Wednesday evening, I’ll be participating in a round table discussion at the Institute of Race Relations with the author and legal expert on EU immigration and human rights law Frances Webber and Ali Ceesay, spokesperson for Children of Calais.  Details here:

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November 11, 2015

To celebrate the publication of the second edition of journalist Matthew Carr”s Fortress Europe: Inside the War Against Immigration  the IRR is hosting a discussion on “Border Wars”.

  • Wednesday 11 November 2015, 6-8pm
  • Institute of Race Relations, 2-6 Leeke Street, London WC1X 9HS

A conversation between:

  • Matthew Carr writer and journalist
  • Frances Webber –  legal expert on EU immigration and human rights law, author of  Borderline Justice
  • Ali Ceesay  –  spokesperson, Children of Calais
  • moderated by  Liz Fekete  – IRR Director

The seminar is also a book launch. Copies of Fortress Europe: Inside the War Against Immigration  (Hurst & Company) will be on sale at a discounted price of £8.00. (RRP £9.99)

This event is free. As the IRR has limited space, booking is essential. To book, email:  [email protected]. Unfortunately the IRR is not wheelchair accessible.

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And on Thursday at 6.30  I’ll be at the Waterstones in Trafalgar Square  in conversation with the critic and journalist Maya Jaggi:

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Matthew Carr on ”Fortress Europe”

Thursday 12th November 18:30 at London – Trafalgar Square

Fortress Europe: Inside the War Against Immigration (Paperback)
Join us for an evening with Matthew Carr, speaking about his book Fortress Europe to journalist and critic Maya Jaggi. Please note:
This is a free event, but booking is essential.
Please phone 0207 839 4411 or email: [email protected]
Thank you!

”Fortress Europe”When the Berlin Wall crumbled in 1989, a euphoric continent hailed the advent of a new “borderless” Europe in which such barriers would become obsolete. More than twenty-five years later, in the midst of the continent”s worst refugee crisis since World War II, European governments have enacted the most sustained and far-reaching border enforcement programme in history. Detention and deportation, physical and bureaucratic barriers, naval patrols and satellite technologies: all these have been part of Europe”s undeclared “war” against undocumented immigration.

These efforts have generated a tragic confrontation between some of the richest countries in the world and a stateless population from the poorest. The human consequences of that confrontation have become impossible to ignore, as migrants drown in unprecedented numbers in the Mediterranean or find themselves trapped in chokepoints like Calais, Hungary and Greece.

Fortress Europe, published here in a revised and updated edition, is an urgent investigation into Europe”s militarised borders. In a series of searing dispatches, Carr speaks to border officers and police, officials, migrants, asylum-seekers and activists from across the continent.  The result is a unique and ground-breaking critique of Europe”s exclusionary borders, and an essential guide to the wider drama of migration that will dominate politics for years ahead.Matthew Carr is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in The Observer, The Guardian, The New York Times and on BBC Radio. He is the author of The Infernal Machine and Blood and Faith.

Maya Jaggi is an award-winning cultural journalist and critic who has reported from five continents and been described as ‘one of Britain’s most respected arts journalists’ by the Open University, which awarded her an honorary doctorate in 2012.  She writes for publications including Financial Times andGuardian Review. Educated at Oxford and the LSE, she  was a DAAD fellow in Berlin in 2014.

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Drop by if you’re in the area!

 

Snobbery is Good for You

Today, while waiting to have my hair cut, I happened to come across a Howard Jacobson article in the weekly Independent about Germaine Greer.    This wasn’t an unexpected or a guilty pleasure.  I rarely find reading Jacobson a pleasure at all, and I don’t really care too much to hear about what he thinks about anything.  For one thing I don’t  find him nearly as funny or as witty or incisive as he seems to regard himself, and he also exudes a certain supercilious sense of his own cleverness that is characteristic of too many contemporary British writers.

The article did nothing to make me change my mind.   Jacobson’s 1,000 words were at first sight a Brendan O’Neill-ish ‘defend the right to be offended’ take on Greer’s transphobic comments, which then segued into a  defense of Martin Amis’s much-noted comments  regarding Jeremy Corbyn’s supposed educational shortcomings.

For those who have forgotten or who never knew,  Amis described Corbyn as a ‘fluky beneficiary of a drastic elevation’ whose two E-grade A-levels confirmed that he was ‘undereducated’  and ‘humourless’,    and whose ‘ intellectual CV gives an impression of slow-minded rigidity; and he seems essentially incurious about anything beyond his immediate sphere.’

Like most of Amis’s media interventions, these comments were based on prejudice rather than judicious analysis, and seemed essentially intended to draw attention to Amis himself.   But the fact that he chose to make these observations in Rupert Murdoch’s Sunday Times suggests that his puerile snobbery also had a more calculated political purpose.

None of this matters to Jacobson however, for whom Amis’s comments belong to a tradition of ‘snobbish derision…of noble ancestry, going back to Hamlet twitting Polonius, Pope, Swift, Wilde, Waugh: a line of scurrilous mirth whose slithering ambiguities make a Charlie of whoever can”t keep up.’

So that was what was coming out of Amis’s mouth: slithering ambiguities and scurrilous mirth.  Had these comments come from Austin Mitchell say, I would have thought that I was dealing with yet another sour British prig gazing downwards at yet another unwashed plebeian pretender.  But now, thanks to Jacobson, I understand the deep moral purpose behind Amis’s less-than-forensic dissection of Corbyn’s limitations:

‘It is a strange, cabbalistic world out there in the celibate darkness of digital resentment forums, where people for good reason denied a platform of their own cling to the coat-tails of those published in the daylight, froth in envious rage, share one another”s small and bitter diatribes and as a matter of principle find nothing funny, not even when it patently is as for example, Amis”s really rather fond description of “weedy, nervy, thrifty” Corbynites each “with a little folded purse full of humid coins”. It”s that word “humid” that does the trick and marks the writer his detractors will never be.’

My goodness there are some clever words in this bundle readers, or words that sound clever anyway, which for Jacobson – and Amis – is the same thing.   Cabbalistic.   Celibate darkness…this is a writer talking.   Of course some of you out there frothing with envious rage in your digital resentment forums might be thinking that Amis is merely the pompous, bitter pseud that many of his detractors would never want to be, but that’s only because you are jealous that you’re not a  writer.  

This ‘envy’ charge is often aimed at people who think that Amis is an overrated jerk. But as my lubricious fingers uncurdle across the humid keyboard in  the comfort of  my celibate darkness, I can’t help wondering whether Jacobson’s attempt to transform Amis’s dank snobbery into a vital expression of ‘liberty’ reflects something more unpleasant than a playful desire to invigorate British society with infectious scurrilous mirth.

Jacobson despises Corbyn, as he has already made clear. But his defense of Amis isn’t just about Amis himself – it’s all a defense of elitism and the right to be elitist.   After all, this is  a man who recently argued that men who read books at Cambridge were incapable of raping ‘totty’ because of the imaginative empathy produced by prolonged exposure to the literary canon.

That is a stunningly dumb observation in itself, but he isn’t the only to believe that a certain kind of elite education creates morally and intellectually superior people, and that those who aren’t exposed to such an education are likely to be morally and intellectually inferior or defective.

There was a similar assumption behind Tristram Hunt’s speech to  the Cambridge University Labour Club  today, in which the former shadow education secretary told his audience’  You are the top 1%. The Labour party is in the shit. It is your job and your responsibility to take leadership going forward.’

Leaving aside Hunt’s analysis of the Labour Party, what is striking about this statement is a) the notion that Cambridge University students belong to the top one percent and that b) their membership makes them more suited to lead the Labour Party than those who don’t belong to it..  

Personally,  I’ve got nothing against Oxbridge students per se.  Inverted snobbery is no more socially valuable than the top-down version.  I have known lots of intelligent, talented and sensitive people who have gone to Oxford and Cambridge, but having lived in both cities I can also testify to the fact that both universities also have their fair share of out and out tools, who are no smarter or more sensitive than anyone else, yet nevertheless take it for granted that they have the right to rule and the right to dominate society.

At present we are ruled by men who seem to have nurtured that sense of entitlement for a long time, who appear to have spent much of their time at Oxford  attending drunken parties in which they cursed the poor, competed to out-vomit each other,  destroyed pubs and restaurants,  and engaged in weird initiation rites in which they had sex with pigs heads.

No one can be too surprised to find such men upholding the interests of their class against the interests of everyone else,  but their existence is further proof that the mere fact of attending Oxbridge does not confer some unique ability to represent steelworkers losing their jobs, or understand the lives of men and women who go to foodbanks, or get their benefits cut.  Nor does it entitle you to lead the Labour Party.

It might seem kind of obvious to point out that just because you have been educated  at an elite university  does not mean that you are intelligent, anymore than the fact that you haven’t attended one means that you are stupid.

And it should also be obvious that people like Amis, who argue otherwise, are elitist snobs, who belong to the category that the gospel singer Mahalia Jackson once called ‘educated fools’.

And contrary to what Jacobson and others may think, such snobbery has no redeeming social value whatsoever.