The Devils of Cardona paperback

My first novel The Devils of Cardona was published in the US in June last year.  This year it’s just come out in paperback.  Here’s an extract from a piece that I wrote for the Literary Hub website to mark the occasion:

As a writer who has written a lot of non-fiction in my time, I often find myself asking the questions that fiction writers seek to ask about the “real” people and events I’ve written about. What did Philip II of Spain actually think about when he was alone in the study where he ruled over his vast empire? What did Sofia Perovskaya and her lover Andrei Zheliabov, the leading members of the terrorist cell that killed Alexander II, say to each other in bed on the eve of the assassination? What was going through William Tecumseh Sherman’s mind when he had his nervous breakdown in Kentucky?

Such questions aren’t always possible to answer from the material you actually have in front of you, and the discipline of history demands—rightly—that you concentrate on what is known rather than what is imagined, which means that speculation must remain a private indulgence.

I often found myself speculating when researching my book Blood and Faith: The Purging of Muslim Spain about the persecution and expulsion of the 16th-century Muslim Converts to Christianity known as Moriscos. Much of the story of the Moriscos comes from Inquisition documents, minutes of Council of State meetings, and 17th-century Spanish texts celebrating the expulsion. Sources in which Moriscos speak for themselves are quite thin on the ground, and much of the contemporary detail about them comes from hostile Christian accounts.

You can read the rest here.

Óscar Martínez: A History of Violence

Many years ago, in 1993 I visited the bombed out ruins of the town of Aguacayo,  the former ‘capital’ of the FMLN-held liberated zone in Guazapa Province during much of  El Salvador’s 12-year civil war.  It was just only one year after the guerrillas had disarmed in  the town  as a result of the implementation of the Chapultepec Peace Accords that brought the war to an end.  Even in peacetime, El Salvador was a rough place.   The country was plagued with criminal violence and awash with weaponry left over from the war, some of which were used to rob banks in commando-style raids.   There were bands of former guerrillas and members of the armed forces operating in parts of rural El Salvador.

The National Guard, the Treasury Police and the government-sponsored death squads were gone, and the army had been put on a leash, but violent death was still alarmingly common.  As I was walking through the countrysdie towards Aguacayo, I met a campesino who told me that a schoolteacher had just been shot on the same path a few days beforehand.  When I asked him why, he simply replied ‘porque sí’ – for the hell of it.

There were a lot of people being killed ‘porque sí’ in post-war El Salvador, and their numbers have continued to soar in the ensuing years.  Today an average of twenty-three people are murdered in El Salvador every day – 80 out of every 100,000 inhabitants in a tiny country with a population of 6.34 million.  Much of this staggering epidemic of violence is due to the prevalence of El Salvador’s huge gangs, such as the Mara Salvatrucha, Barrio 18 and Mirada Lokotes 13, some of which were established in the United States during the war.

The interventions of Mexican drug gangs like Los Zetas, has added to the lethal mix, generating levels of violence and insecurity that make Europe’s ongoing terrorist emergency seem like a sideshow by comparison.  A similar cocktail of poverty, institutionalised corruption, gangs or ‘maras’ and the savage ‘primitive accumulation’ of the narcotrafficantes has ravaged other Central American countries, particularly Guatemala and Honduras.  These are societies supposedly at peace, with a per capita murder rate that blurs the distinctions between peace and war.

No one has described Central America’s tragic predicament more eloquently than the brilliant young Salvadoran journalist Óscar Martínez.   A contributor to the El Faro website, Martínez is a gifted storyteller and a remarkably courageous and intrepid investigative reporter.  His first book The Beast (Verso 2013) was a blistering masterpiece of investigative journalism which chronicled the desperate journeys undertaken by Central American migrants to reach the United States, using the Mexican train that migrants rightly call ‘ La Bestia‘ – the beast.

To tell the stories of these men and women, Martínez rode the trains with them, and walked with them through remote country backroads where migrants are routinely raped and murdered.  He visited country brothels and migrant safe houses and spoke to trafficked women and former migrant slaves.  Martínez described this bleak and terrifying world with skill, grace and humanity.

Now he has brought his formidable talents to bear in a new book which looks at the societies these migrants have tried to escape from.   A History of Violence:  Living and Dying in Central America (Verso 2016) is not an easy or comfortable book to read, and it is not intended to be give comfort.   With his customary forensic rigor, Martínez shines a light on the ongoing calamity unfolding in the region the United States likes to think of as its ‘backyard.’

Martínez ignores nothing and noone.  He speaks to bent and decent cops, to lawyers and soldiers, to narcos, gangsters and contract killers, to male and female gang members, to migrants and the  ‘coyotes’ or guides who help them reach their destinations.  He visits El Salvador’s brutal dystopian prisons, narcotowns in Guatemala’s remote Petén jungle, and the scenes of crimes and massacres.

None of this is macho danger zone posturing.  It is not intended to be salacious, sensational or entertaining.    Martínez has not gone to these places to brag or talk about himself, but to tell the stories of the men and women he meets.   His writing reminds me of Jason Stearns’s superb account of the wars in the Congo Dancing in the Glory of Monsters, in its ability to connect even the most horrendous individual stories with the wider political and socioeconomic context that makes them possible, and even logical.

This doesn’t mean that Martínez is a detached observer.   In his introduction he asks the question ‘ What can I propose to bring an end to these terrifying stories? ‘ before answering that ‘ Journalism only has one method of boring into reality, and it is the same method that the sea uses against the coast: the constant lapping of the waves, whether they are gentle or turbulent.’

Martínez suggests that his readers are an essential part of this process:

‘My proposal is that you know what is going on.  Because I believe that knowing, especially with people like yours, who know how to wield politics, is the beginning of a solution.   I believe, sticking with the metaphor of the sea and the rock, that knowing is what moves the waves.  You can be the waves. ‘

And to North American readers in particular, he has this reminder:

This book isn’t about Martians.  It doesn’t chronicle the tragic life stories of distant, faraway people living in the wilderness, without the Internet, eating nothing but millet.  It doesn’t discuss people you will never see up close or see only on the television.  This book is about the lives of people who cut your lawn and serve you coffee every morning.  It tells the stories of the people who cut your lawn and fix your plumbing.  These lives are very similar to the lives of about 6 million people living in your midst.  It tells the story of the more than 1,000 human beings who every day leave the three northern Central American countries to try to enter, without permission, the United States and other countries of the North.’

Last but not least, Martínez points out that ‘the broken puppet that we are as a region was mostly armed by American politicians’.  As a consequence:

‘ Our society is a cauldron of oppressive military governance, the result of a failed peace process.  We’re living with government corruption and incompetent politicians.  We are living with violence, with death always close at hand: in a traffic accident, a soccer brawl, or in defense of our families.  We are ignorant of peace.  We haven’t had the chance to get to know it.’

No one who reads this terrifying book can remain ignorant of these consequences, and the conclusions that Martínez has drawn from it are not only relevant to Central America.   Martínez takes as an epigraph a quotation from the martyrd Archbishop Óscar Romero, that ‘ Violence will keep changing in name, but violence will always remain as long as there’s no change at the root, from where all these horrible things are sprouting.’

That observation applies to many parts of the world, and the search for solutions begins with a willingness to acknowledge the kind of world we have, rather than the one we think we have.   All of which is one more reason to read this tragic but essential book from one of the most courageous and brilliant reporters working in the world today.

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.

Alistair Campbell’s winners

There is a story some years back, it might have been in one of Nick Cohen’s books, that  Peter Mandelson and various New Labour luminaries attended a politicians-meet-businessmen functions, where they were reportedly so wide-eyed and awestruck by  by the presence of Sky executives that one of the execs contemptuously dubbed them  them ‘starfuckers.’

The deference that New Labour showed towards the rich and powerful when it was in office demonstrated the truth of this observation many times over, and the post-political business careers of its leading politicians shown how much they wanted to be like the people they lionized and envied.    I was reminded of this tale this weekend, when Alistair Campbell over the last week when the former spin doctor made one of his periodic media appearances to promote his new book.

As is always the case whenever these moments occur, there were the usual references to Alistair’s ‘demons’, his nervous breakdown and his depression, because the self-pitying bully who outed David Kelly, and who glibly helped manipulate parliament and the British public into a criminal war of aggression with the casual amorality of a Mad Men creative selling a new Chevy,  is a complex, sensitive and interesting guy, whose complexities are worth talking and thinking about – and certainly more worth thinking about than the horrendous actions that he helped perpetrate, and all the boring dead people that resulted from them.

Campbell may not think much about that, but he clearly thinks a lot about himself and he wants the world to think about him too.   But this time along with the drinking and the depression and all the other stuff,  he has something else he wants the world to talk about.   He wants to talk about ‘winners’, because he has written a 423-page doorstopper called Winners and How they Succeed,  which sets out to explain the inner secrets of rich, famous and successful people like José Mourinho, Bono, Anna Wintour, Shane Warne, Ariana Huffington, Bill and Hilary Clinton, Tony Blair, Usain Bolt – and Elizabeth II for god’s sake –  and all the other great, if not necessarily good, big shots who Campbell has researched.

Campbell should have mentioned Nursultan Nazarbayev, the dictator of Kazahkstan, or Egypt’s military strongman Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who he has advised on ‘communications’ and PR in recent years, because it would be useful to know how they became ‘winners’.

But never mind, because now those of us who are not ‘winners’ now have a chance to become like his subjects.   We too can now sit up in bed poring over sections on ‘standing out from the crowd’ and ‘ changing setbacks into advantages’ so that we might learn how to rise above the common chaff.   We can memorize memorize what Campbell calls the ‘holy trinity’ of  ‘Strategy, Leadership, and Teamship’ or acronyms like  OST – ‘Objective, Strategy, Tactics’, and contemplate profound insights such as ‘ Winners hate losing.  Winners win because they have to.’

So get on with it, if you want to become like Jeff Bezos or Nelson Mandela, another of Campbell’s ‘winners.’  Ok, some of you might think there are some differences between Bezos and Mandela.  You might even be naive enough to think that Mandela wasn’t just a ‘winner’ but the symbol of a resistance movement to apartheid  that involved millions of people, and that his eventual political triumph was their triumph too.

Some of you might also think that Mandela’s greatness wasn’t due to his understanding of OST,  but to his moral grandeur, his faith in humanity and his belief in justice, all of which led him to undergo immense sacrifices for the ideals he believed in.

Others might question how Elizabeth II can be a ‘winner’ when she was born into a position that made losing impossible.   And it is worth noting in passing that José Mourinho owes his success in part to the huge amount of money that a Russian oligarch poured into Chelsea, and also that he fact that he is a successful football manager has never stopped him from being a real jerk, with a nasty sadistic streak that once led him to poke the Barcelona coach Tito Vilanova in the eye.

But Campbell is way too starstruck, and too obsessed with the notion of ‘winning’ as the point and purpose of existence, and the idea that ‘winners’ have certain innate characteristics that make them win to even consider such things. Politics, business, sport and showbiz – it’s all just a race and a competition for Campbell in which only point is for individuals to rise above everyone else.

The unspoken corollary of Campbell’s philosophy is that those of us who are not José Mourinho or Alan Sugar are losers.  Nearly a million Britons, for example, are dependent on food banks.  Clearly this must be due to the fact that they didn’t have the ability to become winners.  Maybe if they’d known about OST they could have avoided this.

Campbell’s adulation of ‘winners’ also ignores the fact that millions of people are brilliantly successful in their communities, their relationships, and their families.  You can find them in hospitals and GP practices, in the schools that Campbell once described as ‘bog standard’, in Africa risking their lives to fight Ebola.   The campaign ‘our three winners’ that sprung up after the North Carolina murders celebrated the lives of three murdered young Muslims as models in an entirely different manner to the model that Campbell would like people to study – if only to flog copies of his book.

People like this will never feature in Campbell’s radar.  For a man who only looks up to ‘winners’ they don’t even exist.   Lijke the anti-war protesters who Campbell once described ‘coming back from the march, placards under their arms, faces full of self-righteousness, occasional loathing when they spotted me’, they will always be little people, whose lives are unworthy of interest or attention.

Of course Campbell isn’t the only one who thinks like this. In the world of the one percent, we are often encouraged to revere the rich and successful simply because they are rich and successful, just as Campbell does, without any reference to their moral qualities or the social conditions that ensure that certain kinds of people succeed.

This is one reason why we have the skewed world order that we have and the dysfunctional society that we have.  Campbell is the perfect symbol of that dysfunction, with his ruthlessness amorality, greed, political dishonesty, and absolute unquestioning deference to power.

Maybe these qualities are what you need to be a ‘winner’, but I can’t help thinking that a society that looks up to someone like Alistair Campbell and accepts his vulgar social darwinism is in more serious trouble than it knows.

Or maybe I’m just suffering from a deficit of  OST.