MEET THE AUTHOR
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
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.