Inspiring Older Readers

posted on 12 Jun 2019

No Pasaran! They Shall Not Pass: A Story of the Battle of Madrid by Upton Sinclair

Probably now best known for The Jungle, his exposé of the dreadful working conditions in the Chicago meat slaughterhouses in the early 20th century, Upton Sinclair (1878 – 1968) was an unapologetic Socialist at a time when the US still had a vocal and visible radical political tradition. He was a Pulitzer Prize winner and a political activist who ran (unsuccessfully) for Congress for both the Socialist and Democratic Parties.

But primarily he was a prolific author with more than a hundred books to his name – most of them polemical. No Pasaran was published in 1937, less than a year after General Franco’s fascist insurrection against the legitimate People’s Government of Spain and is a peon of praise to the American column of the International Brigade – specifically the initial defence of Madrid.

As Sinclair himself tells us in the book’s dedication:

“This book is a cry for freedom, and for decency in human affairs. It deals with one of great heroic episodes of history. It is the story of a group of boys who join the International Brigade and stop the Fascists at the gates of Madrid.

The story is a weapon in the struggle for freedom and justice.”

But contrary to what you might imagine, the battle for Madrid really only occupies what is perhaps the last quarter of the book. The majority of the story in fact maps the growth into political awareness of Rudy Messer, a wealthy American college student who is part of a German immigrant food dynasty who have grown rich and powerful providing a taste of home to their largely German customers. Sinclair makes Messer something of an apolitical hedonist who, almost by accident, goes on a journey of enlightenment – guided him through his political education by a radical Jewish family of Socialists and a family of Anarchists of Italian origin.

He discovers that he no longer has sympathy with the community he’d grown up in as they seem to be embracing an American Fascism that Rudy feels bound to oppose – and this ultimately leads him and his new friends to realise that the Spanish struggle is one they can’t ignore. Staying at home and campaigning against the rise of Fascism just isn’t enough and they realise they must go to fight – whatever the cost.

In truth, Sinclair’s determination to write a novel of uplifting Socialist optimism makes the book teeter on the brink of the unbelievable for much of the time. Rudy’s conversion is hugely unlikely, especially the speed with which it happens, and his new Socialist comrades are so beatific and his Fascist family friends are so grotesque that we soon lose any real sense of the realistic or complex. By the end we’re in full Red Flag-waving mode and while this is something I’m personally happy to trot along with from my own political perspective, if you’re looking for a satisfying novel you might well be disappointed at the two-dimensionality of it all.

Karl Janssen writing on his blog page – Old Books By Dead Guys - concludes his review in this way:

“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.”

It’s a summary that will do for me too.


Terry Potter

May 2019