Monday, November 24, 2014

No Pasaran! A Story of the Battle of Madrid by Upton Sinclair

The Spanish Civil War through American eyes
No Pasaran!, a novel by Upton Sinclair about the Spanish Civil War, was originally published in 1937. Just a year earlier General Francisco Franco had begun his ultimately successful attempt to overthrow the democratically elected Republican government of Spain and install a Fascist dictatorship. Sinclair’s novel opens with Rudy Messer, a wealthy American college student, romancing a young lady at a dance club in New York City. Later that evening he accidentally befriends a poor young worker who then begins to educate him in the philosophies of Socialism, Anarchism, Communism, Syndicalism, and other leftist movements. All these various “red” factions have come together to form a united front against the Fascists and their coup in Spain. Looking back now, it’s hard to believe, but many conservative Americans were pro-Franco. Those who feared that FDR’s New Deal would lead to American Socialism saw the people’s government of Spain as a similarly dangerous movement that needed to be thwarted. Rudy is ostracized by his family for befriending the reds, and he and his new comrades are persecuted by members of the American Nazi Party, who favor Franco and the Fascists. As the subtitle indicates, Rudy eventually forms a unit of volunteers to go overseas and fight the Fascists on Spanish soil.

The story is inspirational and educational, but regrettably rather predictable and therefore often dull. Given the dark subject matter, it is also far too lighthearted and optimistic. Messer and his comrades march off to war with all the exuberant zeal of Andy Hardy and friends putting on a talent show. About four decades earlier Sinclair was writing pulp fiction novels about the Spanish-American War like A Prisoner of Morro, in which he gushes with pro-American jingoism and paints the Spaniards as nefarious villains. In No Pasaran! his outlook is much more liberal and far more respectful to the Spanish—as long as they’re workers and not Fascists—yet his patriotism is still evident. This novel may be chock full of pro-Socialist and anti-Fascist propaganda, but Sinclair still can’t resist cheerleading for the stars and stripes. Despite the fact that the resistance to Fascism was the result of an international workers’ movement, he never lets you forget that this is a story about American soldiers.

Stylistically, this novel feels like a dry run for Sinclair’s Lanny Budd series, which would be published from 1940 to 1953. Rudy may not be as cosmopolitan as Lanny, but both are young men of means who begin to realize that not everyone was born with a silver spoon in their mouth. As both men learn about the plight of the poor, labor unrest, and workers’ issues, they begin to sympathize with Socialism, and their respective novels start to resemble textbooks of political discourse rather than historical fiction. As in the Lanny Budd books, Sinclair has certainly done his research here, and he makes an honest effort to examine the political debates from all sides, though he clearly displays a bias toward the left.

If you’re a fan of Upton Sinclair, as I am, then you no doubt have a high tolerance for “issue” novels. His work almost always incorporates a healthy helping of political preachiness, and No Pasaran! is certainly no exception. This is not one of his best works, but it’s a good solid effort. Readers will get an enlightening education on the Spanish Civil War, or at least one side of it.

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