Friday, June 24, 2016

Wide is the Gate by Upton Sinclair

Lanny Budd’s Spanish Civil War
Wide is the Gate, published in 1943, is the fourth novel in Upton Sinclair’s Lanny Budd series. In the second novel, Between Two Worlds, Lanny survived a scary encounter with Italian Fascism. In the third novel, Dragon’s Teeth, he came face-to-face with the Nazis. In this fourth book, both menaces are back and on the rise, while a new threat is added to the mix: Spanish dictator-to-be Francisco Franco and his right-wing Nationalists. Through the lens of Lanny’s leftist idealism, Sinclair examines the political turmoil taking place in Europe from 1934 to 1937 and illuminates crucial events leading up to the Second World War.

Lanny returns to Germany and once again meets with Adolph Hitler, with whom he rubbed elbows in the last novel. This time around, Lanny is surprised to find that his wife Irma is quite sympathetic to the Fuhrer’s politics. One of the great benefits of this series is that it enlightens us as to how such a madman ever could have come to power in the first place. It is easy for us now to look back on Hitler, Mussolini, and Franco as evil monsters, but the fact is they were supported by many, Americans included, who saw their Fascist movements as the magic bullet that would save the world from socialism. It’s a valuable lesson to bear in mind as we continue to see right-wing politicians play upon xenophobic fears to advance their agendas. Needless to say, Lanny and Irma don’t see eye to eye on many matters, and their difference of political opinion begins to wear on their relationship. Lanny starts keeping secrets from his wife as he offers his assistance to Trudi Schultz, a Jewish artist working for the resistance movement against the Nazis in Germany.

While the first half of the book is dominated by Lanny’s marital woes, the second half focuses largely on the Spanish Civil War. Lanny travels to Spain to purchase some paintings, and ends up getting caught in the crossfire between the Loyalist forces of the democratically elected leftist government and the Nationalist forces of Franco supported by Italy and Germany. Sinclair goes into a great deal of detail regarding the progression of the territorial struggle between the opposing armies. This historical context is combined with Lanny’s man-on-the-street perspective of the chaos of war­—sometimes comic, sometimes tragic. As is typical of the series, the book culminates in a perilous mission for Lanny to undertake. Though exciting, the ending is a bit too similar to that of the previous novel, leaving the reader with the feeling that Wide is the Gate is somewhat of a watered-down version of Dragon’s Teeth.

Each volume in the Lanny Budd series has its share of disappointments, and this book is no exception. As usual, Sinclair spends hundreds of pages checking in with his gigantic ensemble cast before the plot gains any momentum. Once again, there are annoying digressions into the paranormal. Sinclair was fascinated by séances and the possibility of telepathy, so naturally his fictional hero must share this obsession, however inappropriate to the narrative at hand. Nevertheless, the shortcomings of each individual book are mitigated by the ambitiousness and epic scope of the series as a whole. The enormous cast of characters, meandering story, and intricate web of plot threads can be maddening at times, but after a while you just get sucked into Lanny’s world. The amount of historical detail Sinclair crams into every page is staggering, and his encyclopedic knowledge of world affairs is astonishing. If you’ve made it through the first three books, then you already know what I’m talking about and have probably decided to read on. Far be it from this Lanny Budd junkie to discourage you.
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