On Writing and Silence

A loyal follower of this blog and Internet friend asked me last week why I haven’t blogged much recently, so I thought I should explain to those who are interested. There are three main reasons.  In the first place, I’ve been extraordinarily busy.  I’ve been writing two books, one of which required a lot of rewriting.  I’ve also been helping to organize the One Day Without Us campaign, which really has eaten into my working day, particularly in October, when it was almost impossible to do anything else.

Secondly, so many horrific,depressing – and complex things have happened this year that I have felt unable to keep up with them or say anything meaningful about them in the time that I have had.

My inability to speak out about Trump, Brexit, Syria, Yemen and so many other things is also related to an ongoing personal political crisis that I have yet to resolve.  In November last year, one of the people who criticized my ‘international brigades’ post asked me why I kept writing things.  I told him I wrote because there wasn’t any choice for me.  It’s what I do and what I’ve always done.   At the same time I’ve always asked myself what value writing has – not just mine – but any writing.  What does it do?  What does it achieve?

One of my favourite writers is the great Austrian satirist Karl Kraus ‘ the master of venomous ridicule’, as Stefan Zweig once called him.  Kraus’s venom and his ridicule sometimes bordered on the misanthropic – not a position I’ve ever wanted to find myself in – but he wrote with real brilliance about the nationalist insanity of World War II, in his essays and also in his sprawling play The Last Days of Humanity.   In an essay on the outbreak of World War I, Kraus said that essentially that the world had become so corrupt and debased to the point that language itself had not meaning and therefore the only thing writers could do was step forward and say nothing at all.

Of course he didn’t do that – he was a writer after all.   But one writer who did retreat into silence was Isaac Babel.  Estranged from Stalinist literary culture and from Stalin himself, he decided to write nothing and say nothing.  In Stalinist Russia that wasn’t good enough of course.  Silence was a political position, because it wasn’t support for the regime.  Because Babel didn’t loudly proclaim the revolution and its inane cult of socialist realism, he was objectively counter-revolutionary and that’s why he was eventually shot, in effect, for saying nothing.

My own temporary silence on this blog owes more to Kraus than to Babel.  It isn’t that I consider silence a statement, but lately I have just not been able to find the words with which to respond to the depraved lunacy and collective stupidity that is sweeping my country and the Western world lately.

And that isn’t all.   I’ve always thought of myself as on the left and of the left and I still do, but there’s so little I admire or respect about the British left right now it’s really hard to feel I ‘belong ‘ to it. On one level I never did . I didn’t call my blog ‘notes from the margins’ for nothing. If I had any use as a writer writing about politics, it was from that marginal critical position, which didn’t pin me to any established party or network or make the representative of anything.

That changed somewhat when Stop the War began posting my pieces – something that I was ok with until I found myself accused of ‘representing’ positions that I didn’t have.   But 2016 has been a kind of critical rupture for me, following the debacle of last November w/ the ‘international brigades’ fiasco and the almost complete abandonment of critical faculties by sections of the left back then – which still continues albeit in trickles – , not to mention Stop the War’s cowardly abandonment of myself and Chris Floyd.

Then there was Brexit,and it’s little wannabe sister Lexit, propagating the cynical/opportunist and downright foolish idea that a no vote was somehow ‘progressive’ – coupled with a refusal to recognise the racism unleashed and legitimised by it, and a willingness to effectively throw some three million EU citizens under the Brexit bus in the vague hope that something good might turn up out of the mess for the left, or the working class or the revolution.

Let me make it absolutely clear – a left that behaves like this and thinks like this, no matter how cleverly, is not a movement that I feel anything in common with or want to ‘belong’ to, or speak for or speak to.   There really aren’t any words to express how disgusted I am by this and how shameful I find it.

And now we have McDonnell, McCluskey and Lewis coming from the soft left promising to ‘listen to concerns’ about immigration, when they should be challenging them.

And then there is the left and Syria. It isn’t just the ‘revolutionary’ posturing by people who would never go anywhere near a Syrian battlefield, many of whom are busy picking up MAs and PhDs while spouting platitudes about armed struggle.Or the vicious insults if you don’t accept their starry-eyed vision of the Syrian revolution. Fascist bag carrier. Truther. Ghouta denialist. Assad supporter. Piece of shit. ISIS lover – I’ve heard it all from these great humanitarians over the last few years.

It isn’t just the certainty about things that are not always certain. Or the jostling for a morally superior position, using Syria as an excuse to pursue old sectarian vendettas in a new form. There are also the leftists who talk about Assad as if he were the good guy in this, and a representative of the ‘axis of resistance’ etc, and now t’s all Israel’s fault etc

To me the Syrian war is an unmitigated horror. Is that the ‘correct’ line? Is it enough? No. Do I know the ‘truth’ about Syria?  No.   But I find it astounding that Syria has suddenly become a test of how left or how moral or how revolutionary you are. I do not accept that we ‘have blood on our hands’ for Aleppo and not for Yemen, or South Sudan, or Mosul, or Gaza.

Why does the ‘left’ play games like this? Why, when faced with wars, do so many leftists believe that you always have to support one side or the other? Suppose you don’t think any of the sides are ‘good’?

In the end I don’t know  why the left behaves like this, but like I said, I don’t admire or respect it (hey don’t worry, i know the feeling’s mutual), and it’s made it very difficult for me to write blog posts or even facebook posts – except on racism and migration.

The thing is, for much of my life I felt that the left were the good guys – regardless of the many historical crimes that some leftist regimes have carried out, and that the left, with all its contradictions, still offered answers to the various scourges of militarism, racism, war, poverty and social justice that it was incumbent on my generation to try and solve.

Now I’m not sure if that’s true. I’m not even sure the left, especially the ‘revolutionary’ left has any future at all except as a subculture – and a forum to attack anyone who isn’t Marxist enough for it or as revolutionary as they think they should be.

In fact I’m not really that sure about anything right now, and that’s why I haven’t written very much on this blog.   That doesn’t I’m going to retreat into silence or withdraw from the world. It doesn’t mean that I intend to follow the Nick Cohen route.

I have no intention of shutting down the Infernal Machine permanently.  After all,  I might have Karl Kraus whispering in one ear, but I also have Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s great poem Bol! [Speak} next to my desk, which declares quite rightly:

Speak, this brief hour is long enough
Before the death of body and tongue:
Speak, ‘Cause the truth is not dead yet,
Speak, speak, whatever you must speak.

So I wish you all a peaceful ending to this year of lunacy, and I look forward to seeing you all again in 2017, ready to wage the many struggles that still have to be waged.

Banned Books Week Appearance

This Thursday I’m speaking at the British Library as part of Banned Books Week. Among other things I’ll be talking about the ‘banning’ of my own book Unknown Soldiers back in 2007, something I’ve never done before. I shall also be discussing a range of free speech-related issues with the children’s author Melvyn Burgess and Jo Glanville from English PEN. It promises to be an interesting evening. For anyone who wants to come here are the details:

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Banned Books Week: Censorship and the Author

Upcoming Event

An evening of discussions on the current threat of censorship to literary works and the issues surrounding free speech.

While we might wish to consign book burning to the pages of history, the censorship of books remains a present and pressing concern. In particular, the challenging of books aimed at young adults that deal with teenage issues in an open and direct manner, such as Paper Towns by John Green and Junk by Melvin Burgess, which have become almost commonplace in recent years.

As part of Banned Books Week (25 September to 1 October), join us for an evening with Melvin Burgess and guests. Winner of the prestigious Carnegie Medal, the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize and the LA young adult book of the year award, Burgess is the author of a series of acclaimed but controversial novels for young adults (Junk, Lady: My Life as a Bitch, Doing It) dealing with subjects such as heroin addiction and teenage sex.

Click here to view our book list for Banned Books Week.

This event is taking place at the British Library.
Click here to book tickets.

Banned Books Week was initiated by theAmerican Library Association (ALA) in 1982 in response to an increasing number of challenges in the US to books in schools, bookstores and libraries, and in particular, books aimed at children or young adults.

Islington Library and Heritage Services, along with the British Library and Free Word, are celebrating Banned Books Week and drawing attention to censorship and free speech working alongside the American Library Association.

Speakers

Melvin Burgess is the winner of the prestigious Carnegie Medal, the GuardianChildren’s Fiction Prize and the LA young adult book of the year award. He is the author of a series of acclaimed but controversial novels for young adults that deal with subjects such as drug addiction, homelessness, teenage sex and cosmetic surgery.

His first book, The Cry of the Wolf was published in 1990, but it was not until the publication of Junk, a novel dealing with homelessness and teenage heroin addiction, that he achieved mainstream success.

Further award-winning novels include the fantasy Bloodtide (1999) and the controversial Doing it which dealt with teenage sex. His most recent novelHunger was published in 2014.

Matthew Carr is a writer and journalist who has written for a range of publications including Esquire, the New York Times, History Today, the Observer, the Daily Telegraph and the Guardian. He is the author of  five non-fiction books and his first novel, The Devils of Cardona, was published in June 2016 by Penguin Random House in the US.

Matthew blogs about politics, books, history, cinema, music and other things on his website: www.infernalmachine.co.uk. He is on Twitter @MattCarr55.

Jo Glanville (chair) has been the Director of English PEN since 2012, having come from Index on Censorship where she worked as an award-winning editor since 2006. She was a BBC current affairs producer for eight years and appears regularly in the media as a commentator on culture and freedom of expression, including in the Guardian, the Daily Telegraph and the London Review of Books.

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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.