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:

What’s so interesting about William Tecumseh Sherman?

There are a lot of books to read, and for those of you that like to spend time, maybe too much time, on the internet, there is a lot of stuff to read that isn’t in books and which doesn’t even give you time to read them.   As if it wasn’t enough trying to consume and digest the torrent of information pouring in from a thousand sources on a daily basis, there are shows and series to watch and catch up with, and somewhere in the middle of all that there is something that used to be called life.

So why, when your brain is already creaking under the strain of all this information and infotainment, would you want to read my book Sherman’s Ghosts: Soldiers, Civilians, and the American Way of War, which was published in the States last month by New Press?  A fair question, which I will try to answer.  First of all, it has a great cover:

Sherman’s Ghosts

Think of what you could do with a cover like that in your home.  You could stand it up beside you in the kitchen when you’re cooking supper, and wonder why a picture of an American Civil War general has been juxtaposed with America’s wars in Iraq.   You could frame it and put in on your bedroom wall so that you could contemplate it every night just before you go to sleep.  You could  take it with you on holiday and hold it up by the beach or the swimming pool so that passersby could look askance at you and perhaps give you a wide berth.

Ok, I can hear you saying, but why should I read it?  Well, first of all William Tecumseh Sherman is one of the most fascinating figures in American military history.   His most famous campaign was the scorched earth ‘March to the Sea’ through Georgia, followed by an even more destructive rampage through the Carolinas, in which his army targeted the morale and economic resources of the Southern civilian population. Sherman’s Ghosts takes a new look at these campaigns.   This is what the blurb says:

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“To know what war is, one should follow our tracks,” General William T. Sherman once wrote to his wife, describing the devastation left by his armies in Georgia. Sherman’s Ghosts is an investigation of the “tracks” left by the wars fought by the American military in the 150 years since Sherman’s infamous “March to the Sea.”Sherman’s Ghosts opens with an epic retelling of General Sherman’s fateful decision to turn his sights on the South’s civilian population in order to break the back of the Confederacy.

Acclaimed author Matthew Carr then exposes how this strategy became the central preoccupation of war planners in the twentieth century and beyond, offering a stunning and lucid assessment of the impact Sherman’s slash-and-burn policies have had on subsequent wars, including World War II and in the Philippines, Korea, Vietnam, and even Iraq and Afghanistan.

In riveting accounts of military campaigns and in the words and writings of American fighting men and military strategists, Carr finds ample and revealing evidence of Sherman’s long shadow. Sherman’s Ghosts is a rare reframing of how we understand our violent history and a call to action for those who hope to change it.

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If Sherman was just a military monster or thug or a brutish pillager, as the Confederacy once regarded him, then there wouldn’t be much to say about him.  But Sherman is nothing of the kind.  Sensitive, mercurial, depressive, intellectual, and ruthless – he was also a general who abhorred war, a democrat who distrusted democracy, and a reactionary patriot who believed that the American system of government was the best on earth and yet feared continually that his country might disintegrate into ‘anarchy.’

Sherman’s decision to make war on civilians – and the moral and ethical arguments that he put forward to justify them -  were a response to the new strategic problems of modern wars between nation-states that he observed in the American Civil War.  Sherman has been variously described as the inventor of ‘total war’ and the apostle of limitless destruction, and a throwback to an earlier form of ‘primitive’ or ‘medieval’ warfare that preceded the supposedly ‘rule-based’ warfare of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

But Sherman was a practitioner of calibrated ‘benevolent destruction’ that was entirely geared towards the achievement of very specific politico-military objectives.  In analysing what he did and why he did it, I wanted to understand why armies make war on civilians, and also to consider the extent to which Sherman’s understanding of modern war has – or has not – been integrated into America’s subsequent wars.

Obviously this subject is likely to be of interest to Civil War buffs and students of military history, but I also wrote the book as an ‘anti-militarist military history’ in order to bring my arguments to a wider readership that doesn’t necessarily know much about General Sherman or the American Civil War.  Given that military history can be a little esoteric for some readers, I’ve kept it short and concise. And if you still aren’t convinced, then here are some excerpts from the reviews so far, such as the following:

“A provocative, and at times maddening, argument about one of the most brilliant and destructive military minds in American history.”
—Clay Mountcastle, author of Punitive War: Confederate Guerrillas and Union Reprisals

‘a grim account of military hypocrisy in the service of mass slaughter,Kirkus Reviews.

‘Carr (Fortress Europe) challenges the reader by asking the question: If Sherman represents the enduring symbol of military barbarism, to what extent have America’s subsequent wars followed the template that he created? The author’s concern is not with military operations, strategies, and battles per se, but rather with Washington’s wars on innocent civilians.’ Library Journal

There are also some longer reviews, such as this one, from Jonathan W. Jordan at the Wall Street Journal: (the mostly hostile comments are interesting too)

‘This year, British writer Matthew Carr takes on the story of Sherman’s March with an admittedly “unconventional history.” In “Sherman’s Ghosts: Soldiers, Civilians, and the American Way of War,” Mr. Carr describes the influence of Sherman’s strategy on American military operations from Reconstruction to the war on terror. Mr. Carr deplores Sherman’s methods.

While stopping short of classifying Sherman as a terrorist—“a futile and essentially meaningless exercise,” he concedes—he compares Sherman to Japanese and German ravagers of World War II and excoriates the indirect approach to war, then and now. As he puts it: “Sherman embodies a very specific use of military force as an instrument of coercion and intimidation that has often been replayed by the U.S. military and also by other armies.’

And this, from the great Civil War historian James MacPherson in the New York Times:

‘Carr categorizes his book as “an anti­militarist military history.” In that respect, Sherman’s legacy reinforces Carr’s message that war is indeed “hell” and its supposed glories are “moonshine,” as Sherman said after the Civil War in a speech that impugned “those who have never heard a shot, never heard the shriek and groans of the wounded and lacerated . . . [but] cry aloud for more blood, more vengeance, more desolation.” Perhaps Sherman should be categorized as an anti­militarist general.’

And this, from Lieutenant Colonel John Nagl (retired), David Petraeus’ former advisor during the Iraq ‘surge’, in The American Scholar (subscribers only):

‘ Military historian Russell Weigley’s 1973 masterpiece, The American Way of War, posits that Americans have developed a distinctive brand of armed conflict that focuses on the complete destruction of the enemy….Weigley succinctly states that ” the strategy of annihilation became characteristically the American way in war.” Following in Weigley’s enormous footsteps, British journalist Matthew Carr attempts in his new book to explain the how and why of this strategic shift. His is a worthy effort.’

Not all these reviewers are entirely favourable.  There are things I’ve written that they didn’t agree with, and things they’ve written that I don’t agree with.  But my book was intended to promote argument and debate, and these reviews make it clear that it has.

So there it is.  The truth may not be out there but my book is.  It’s only published in the US at the moment, but you can still get it from the usual sources.  So join in the argument.  Treat yourself or the one you love most to a copy of Sherman’s Ghosts.  Put in on your beach reading list this summer.

Because maybe you don’t want to read about war.  Perhaps you agree with General Sherman, who once said ‘ I am sick and tired of war. Its glory is all moonshine. It is only those who have neither fired a shot nor heard the shrieks and groans of the wounded who cry aloud for blood, for vengeance, for desolation. War is hell.’

But John Bolton’s savage column advocating the bombing of Iran last week in the New York Times is another reminder of the militarists in the US – and elsewhere – who have never been anywhere near a battlefield yet still ‘cry aloud for blood, for vengeance, for desolation.’

In the 21st century war and militarism continue to menace our world, just as they did in the last century, at a time when we need more than ever to devote our energies to more positive outcomes.   In these circumstances, we need to remember what war is and what it has been and also understand how it came to be what it is.  

Someone once said that politics is too important to be left to politicians.  I would add that war is too important to be left to generals and students of military history.  That’s why I wrote Sherman’s Ghosts.

My Father’s House: Official Re-Launch!

After more than a decade out of print, my 1998 memoir My Father’s House: In Search of a Lost Past officially comes into existence today as a self-published e-book.   It’s available at Amazon, iBooks, Kobo and other outlets at £3.99 ($6.99).    My Father’s House is my most personal book, and a book that I’ve always been particularly proud of, so I’m really pleased that 21st century has given me the opportunity to re-introduce it to a new generation of readers.

Here is the book description:

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In 1995 Matthew Carr returned to Guyana in the Caribbean, where his parents’ marriage had broken up nearly thirty years before, in order to investigate the mysterious death of his father Bill Carr in 1991. A popular and charismatic English lecturer, a lover of DH Lawrence, Shakespeare and Matthew Arnold, and a left-wing political activist with a strong public presence in West Indian politics, Bill Carr was also a violent alcoholic who beat his wife and children, and whose alcohol-induced mayhem forced his family to return to England without him in 1967.

In the ensuing decades little was known of the life he led in a country whose single claim to international fame in all that period was the ‘Jonestown massacre.’ Apart from a single visit to England a few years before his death, Bill Carr had, it seemed, cut himself off from his family and his country and chosen to live a life of exile with a new family in his adopted country. His son’s decision to return to Guyana for the first time since 1967 was partly prompted by the confused circumstances that preceded his father’s death, in which he seemed to express a wish to return to his native land.

What began as an exploration of a lost West Indies childhood in Jamaica and Guyana and an investigation of his father’s chaotic and contradictory personality, became a compelling and extraordinary journey into the racial politics and history of the Caribbean, and Guyana in particular. Why did so many people remember Bill Carr so well when his family remembered him so badly? Why had his father cut himself off from his family so completely and so brutally? Why had he wanted to return? What caused his death?

Alternating between meetings with his father’s friends, colleagues, enemies and family members, Carr sets out to answer these questions and reconcile their memories with those of his family. The result is a striking combination of family history, travelogue, and colonial history that recalls Malcolm Lowry, Graham Greene and Joseph Conrad, in which the story of Bill Carr’s steep descent into masochistic self-destruction mirrors the collapse of Guyana under the post-colonial dictatorship of Forbes Burnham.

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And here are some reviews that it received at the time:

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‘ Bill Carr embodied all the idealism and sickness of the colonial mind and his son’s narrative is a monumental exploration of the paradoxes of Empire. It is written as if from the pen of a novelist, superbly plotted with a marvellous sense of the intricacies of character and a panoramic view of British and colonial history. Matthew Carr has made astonishing art of his father’s wreckage.’ David Dabydeen, The Times

‘Matthew Carr embarks, literally, on a journey in search of his father. His book combines the skills of a gifted travel writer, a novelist and a biographer. The result is a high-class creation that unfolds with the excitement of a detective story.’
Richard Gott, The Independent

‘ …almost impossible to categorize. A personal biography, it reads at times as a socio-political history and at others as a gripping novel.’ The Times

‘ …an honest and decently written memoir, and Carr junior’s motive in writing it is exemplary.’
The Mail on Sunday

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And here is a review that the e-book has just been posted on Amazon:

[stextbox id=”alert”]My Father’s House is a deeply affecting, fluent and insightful meditation on memory, family, and personal identity. It reminded me a great deal of John Irving’s wonderfully melancholic novel about childhood memory, Until I Find You. In both books, the main character goes on a journey to try and discover the truth of childhood memory, and make sense of the contradictions and gaps in their personal history. Along the way, they are forced to contront the flawed humanity of their loved ones, and the positive and negative ways in which their parents continue to shape their sense of identity. As such, My Father’s House unfolds as part travel log, part mystery, part philosophical meditation, part auto-ethnography. Either way, it is brutally honest, beautifully written, and deeply engaging. I was genuinely moved by its eloquence, its tenderness and its profound insight into the fragilities of human relationships. The final chapter provided a particularly satisfying end to a wonderful narrative that will have universal appeal. It’s one of the best books I have read in recent times. Buy it. Read it, and prepare to be moved.[/stextbox]

 

Fortress Europe: Dispatches from a Gated Continent

It’s been more than a year since my last book Fortress Europe: Dispatches from a Gated Continent came out, and it has yet to receive a single review in any mainstream publication in the UK.

I’m sure I don’t need to remind any readers of this blog that immigration is a ‘hot’ political topic, and that much of the ‘debate’ about it is shaped by a torrent of lies, prejudice and misinformation emanating from the politicians and the media.

In my book I’ve tried to give some different perspectives.   I’ve tried to give voices to people who normally aren’t heard.  I spent two and a half years traveling round Europe’s ‘hard borders’ to try and do this.

Here is the result, in the UK edition…

 

And the American…

And here are some reasons why you might want to get it for someone for Xmas:

‘ Matthew Carr has dug beneath this humanitarian citadel to expose how atavistic fears, racism, and paranoia, fed by cowardly and callous politicians, are blighting the lives of asylum seekers and other “aliens”.   Immanuel Kant and John Stuart Mill would turn in their graves at this denial of human dignity.  [A] measured and moving account of the hypocrisy at the heart of European human rights.’ – Geoffrey Robertson QC

‘Employing a personable, readable style, the author shares vignettes from his extensive travels along Europe’s outer reaches, from the African exclaves of Ceuta and Melilla to the Greek archipelago to the Slovakian-Ukrainian border. . . His focus on the human consequences of global inequality transcends ideological distinctions. An unflinching look inside.’ –Kirkus Reviews

‘Fortress Europe shines a light on Europe’s hidden war against immigration, whose devastating human cost is often ignored. Through powerful first-hand reporting from the front lines, Matthew Carr reminds us that migrants are not barbarians at the gates but human beings who, like us, aspire to a better life.’ – Philippe Legrain, author of Immigrants: Your Country Needs Them

This stirring, authentic account of the refugee experience comes from Carr’s face-to-face interviews and passionate observation of current hot topics sure to spark debate, including human trafficking.’ – American Library Association.  Booklist Editors’ Choice: Adult Books for Young Adults 2012

‘An inspiring and thoroughly researched book, not afraid of communicating a clear political message and expressing severe criticism, Fortress Europe provides much room for discussion not only on EU immigration policies, but also on the norms, values and principles on which Europe builds itself and against which it is measured.’ – Inez von Weitershausen.  LSE Blogs. 

‘ Carr has some humane and sensible suggestions, the most important being that Europeans pay attention to their own history, and not just the blood-soaked ethnic warfare part. The EU only broke down its interior borders after a prolonged period of worry on the part of rich northern nations that they would be overwhelmed by over-breeding, low-income southern Europeans. Look how that turned out.’ – Brian Bethune, Macleans Magazine

‘ Carr’s message is clear: “If borders can be hardened, they can also be softened.” He argues that the EU must begin dismantling the ‘walls’ built on fear and prejudice if it wants to stay true to the values on which it was founded. With its eye-opening depictions, strong moral position and thought-provoking proposals, there is no doubt that this book will appeal to a broad public, nurturing critical discussions about border-related policies and practices and the future of the ‘gated continent’. – Council for European Studies.  

‘ What are the humanitarian consequences of European strategies to protect their own borders? This book provides contemporary and historical context and contends that European immigration policies and so-called “hard borders” have a role in explaining instability and border conflicts in poorer states.’ – Christian Science Monitor ‘ 23 books I wish Obama and Romney would read.’

‘ This disturbing but hopeful book humanizes the face of 21st-century immigration.’ – Publishers Weekly

‘The unique virtue of the book lies in Carr’s reporting from the brutal frontiers of the new Europe: Ukrainian border towns where illegal trafficking thrives, Spanish territories in Morocco where would-be immigrants are shot dead or left to die in the Sahara after attempting to scale razor-wire fences, Italian and Maltese islands where overfilled boatloads of Africans drown by the hundreds.’ – Foreign Affairs

‘Matthew Carr’s Fortress Europe exposes the racism and brutality that are the result of immigration border controls. He details the treacherous routes taken by migrants in order to evade detection, the squalid prison-like detention centres in which they are held, and the relentless harassment they face at the hands of some of the most affluent states in the world.’ – Socialist Review

‘ An eye-opening journey…a world the regular traveler will never see,’ Philippe Sands

‘ Americans would do well to travel with Matthew Carr inside Fortress Europe to understand the ugly resentments, reactions, and anti-immigrant backlash that are shifting Europe dangerously from its social democratic foundations. ‘ – Tom Barry, author of Border Wars

‘ Fortress Europe is a wake-up call to anyone who cares about the future of our civilization in the turbulent age of globalization.’ – Anouar Majid, author of We Are All Moors