Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Matthew Carr's "The Savage Frontier"

Matt Carr is a writer, campaigner and journalist, living in Sheffield England. His non-fiction books include: My Father’s House; The Infernal Machine: a History of Terrorism; Blood and Faith: the Purging of Muslim Spain; Sherman’s Ghosts: Soldiers, Civilians, and the American War of War; and Fortress Europe: Dispatches from a Gated Continent.

His first novel The Devils of Cardona, was published in 2016 by Penguin Random House in the US.

Carr applied the “Page 99 Test” to his latest book, The Savage Frontier: the Pyrenees in History and the Imagination, and reported the following:
The Savage Frontier is a history of the Pyrenees, which challenges the stereotypical image of the mountains as a remote border region, isolated from the main currents of European and world history. I also examined the cultural depictions of the Pyrenees and the different ways in which the Pyrenean landscape has become a 'landscape of the imagination.' It's a very personal history, which combines various genres. In writing it, I was determined to see as many places and landscapes as I could with my own eyes, and I tried to imagine them from the perspective of the people I wrote about.

The chapter in which page 99 appears is entitled 'The Zone of War'. As the title suggests, it looks at the military history of the Pyrenees as a battleground and strategic frontier, for invading armies and soldiers fighting in Spain's various civil wars. Beginning with Hannibal's Pyrenean crossing en route to his more famous traverse of the Alps, this chapter takes in various episodes, including Caesar's campaigns during the Roman civil wars; the wars between Spain and France; the Carlist Wars; Wellington's campaigns against Napoleon in 1813; guerrilla warfare, the International Brigades, culminating in the resistance to Francoism waged by Spanish anarchist guerrillas in France, which continued until the early 1960s.

This military history closes with a section entitled 'The Wars of Pau Casals.' It deals with the pacifists and anti-war activists who have also been part of the Pyrenean theatre of war. Foremost amongst them was the Catalan cellist Pau Casals, an opponent of Franco who continued to live close to the Spanish border in the Pyrenean market town of Prats-de-Mollo for twenty-three years. Casals refused to play in public as long as Franco remained in power. As a result, a group of international musicians established a music festival in 1949 in Prats-de-Mollo in his honour, which continues to this day.

Page 99 closes that chapter. It's only one paragraph, which forms part of a description of a concert at the monastery of Saint-Michel-de-Cuxa on the slopes of Mount Canigou which I attended, as part of the Pau Casals music festival in 2016. Casals loved that monastery and often played there. I visited the monastery during a summer in which France was in a state of emergency following a spate of terrorist attacks, and even the carpark to the monastery was filled with extra police.

Today war is a distant memory in the history of the Pyrenees, and after so much violence and mayhem, I wanted to close the chapter on a more uplifting and hopeful note. On page 99 I describe the music that I heard, and I imagine Casals during his precarious exile in Nazi-controlled France during World War 2, a ' little bald man in glasses...beginning his daily practice with his beloved Bach, as he did almost every day during his wartime years.'

At that time, Casals could not be certain if he would ever play again, and I compare 'the barbarism of our own era' to the barbarism that he patiently endured during his lonely vigil. As short as it is, page 99 captures the tone and style of the book, with its combination of travelogue, history and personal reflection, and a narrative which frequently flits back and forth between past and present.

All of which suggests that, in this case at least, Ford Madox Ford was absolutely right.
Visit Matthew Carr's website.

The Page 69 Test: The Devils of Cardona.

Writers Read: Matthew Carr.

--Marshal Zeringue