Matthew Carr tells us why he chose to write a book about the his­tory of a moun­tain range, and ex­plains why the Pyre­nees re­mains such a cap­ti­vat­ing re­gion to re­search

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Why write a book fo­cus­ing on this spe­cific geo­graph­i­cal re­gion?

I’ve al­ways wanted to write a book about land­scape, and about the role that cer­tain land­scapes play in the hu­man imag­i­na­tion. I’m fas­ci­nated by the way that bor­ders are imag­ined as hard, sharp lines of divi­sion be­tween coun­tries and cul­tures, and the com­plex in­ter­ac­tions that you find when you look more closely at the bor­der­lands through which they run. The his­tory of the Pyre­nees is filled with these con­tra­dic­tions.

What kinds of peo­ple made a jour­ney over the Pyre­nees? Are there any sto­ries that par­tic­u­larly stand out for you?

Monks, pil­grims, sol­diers, sci­en­tists, refugees, po­ets, artists, ex­iles, Nazi mys­tics – the his­tory of the Pyre­nees over­flows with so many strik­ing char­ac­ters and in­ci­dents that you’re spoiled for things to write about. Some of the most dra­matic episodes con­cerned the jour­neys made by the es­cap­ing sol­diers and refugees who crossed the Pyre­nees from France to Spain dur­ing World War II. I walked some of the routes they took, and was con­stantly moved by the ob­sta­cles they tried – and some­times failed – to over­come, and by the un­quench­able de­sire for life and free­dom that led them to un­der­take these jour­neys.

What per­cep­tion did peo­ple out­side the Pyre­nees have of the re­gion?

For much of their his­tory, the Pyre­nees were imag­ined by the out­side world as a fron­tière

sauvage: a wild fron­tier, firstly be­tween Moor­ish Spain and Latin Chris­ten­dom, and later as a phys­i­cal bor­der be­tween Spain and France. Peo­ple var­i­ously pic­tured them as a for­bid­ding moun­tain wilder­ness with no in­trin­sic value, and the gate­way to an ‘African’ Spain that was si­mul­ta­ne­ously threat­en­ing and ex­otic. It wasn’t un­til the late 18th cen­tury that sci­en­tists, ex­plor­ers, ad­ven­tur­ers and tourists be­gan to ‘dis­cover’ the Pyre­nean land­scape, and trans­mit­ted more ap­peal­ing im­ages of the land­scape and its peo­ple to the out­side world.

Do all of these sto­ries help us un­der­stand the his­tory of this par­tic­u­lar part of Europe more gen­er­ally?

“This is one of the world’s most be­guil­ing and fas­ci­nat­ing land­scapes, with its own his­tory, cul­ture and tra­di­tions”

I hope so! If you look at the many peo­ple who have vis­ited the Pyre­nees and crossed them for one rea­son or an­other, you in­evitably find not just a mi­cro­cosm of Euro­pean his­tory, but a rich and com­plex Pyre­nean his­tory that has too of­ten been ig­nored by clichés and stereo­types handed down through pos­ter­ity.

Why has this story not been more broadly told? And how do you hope your book will change peo­ple’s per­cep­tions about the re­gion?

His­to­ries of moun­tain ranges tend to be dom­i­nated by climbers’ tales, ref­er­ences to iconic peaks and so on. The Pyre­nees do have such el­e­ments, but the fact that they pale in com­par­i­son with the Alps or the Hi­malayas means that kind of in­ter­est has gen­er­ally been ab­sent. The his­tory of the Pyre­nees has tended to ap­pear – when it ap­pears at all – as an ad­junct of the his­to­ries of the two great states on ei­ther side of them. I hope my book will give read­ers a greater ap­pre­ci­a­tion of the role the Pyre­nees have played in world his­tory, and also as one of the world’s most be­guil­ing and fas­ci­nat­ing land­scapes, with its own his­tory, cul­ture, lan­guages and tra­di­tions.

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