Review: To Ruhleben–and Back

In 1914, two months after England and Germany went to war, Geoffrey Pyke persuaded a newspaper to hire him as a war correspondent. Pyke was about 20 at the time and, acting under the same impulse by which modern 20 year olds crash keg parties and drink themselves into comas, snuck into Berlin. He was arrested, of course. But, hey, at least he got a book out of it.

To Ruhleben–and Back was published in 1916 and recently republished under McSweeney’s (McSweeney’s’s?) Collins Library imprint. (And damn, this is a handsome book. Good paper, a cover made of sturdy boards and real cloth–Cloth! In an age of big-publisher hardcovers covered in construction paper!–and the design must have time-travelled forwards from the days when books were bound like their publishers gave a damn. I stuck it on my shelf between Phillip Pullman and David Quammen and it looked like Mr. Blackwell at a hobo convention.)

Pyke spent months in solitary confinement wondering whether he’d be shot. Then he was transferred to a cold and inadequate POW camp at Ruhleben. A case of pneumonia left him with a weak heart. He escaped in the company of a man who knew the country better. They walked a very long way to the Netherlands with very little food. Pyke collapsed several times and was once almost left for dead.

As Pyke tells it, all of this was hilariously funny. He winds up a trip to jail by giving one an officer a small tip. He notices surprising but telling details. (In prison he’s given a booklet with a diagram that shows exactly how he is to arrange his few personal items on his little shelf… but the booklet itself is shown with the diagram on the back cover instead of the front, making the arrangement impossible.) Pyke writes precise, vivid descriptions of what he thought and felt, but with an objective tone. Like he’d found a place where he could observe his own life from a respectful distance.

His arrest is unexpectedly not exciting:

The relations between the imagination and reality are such that the mental picture of an event may be infinitely more exciting–that is to say–if influenced by self-consciousness, and without the latter there can be no “excitement”–than when it comes to reality itself. I had thought of this scene dozens of times in a casual manner, and I had latterly avoided the thought as I found that I became “excited” under its influence, while reality left me untouched. This, as far as my own experience goes, is the psychology of adventure.

Pyke isn’t a Tough Man. The worship of the Tough Man–or the Tough Woman, although it usually is a man–is the modern world’s defining pathology. The Tough Man is hard and unforgiving. He will do anything–anything–to defend what’s Right, and he’s justified in all of it. His enemies are monsters. When he goes out to fight them, it is not just reasonable but heroic to become a monster himself.

This is a global phenomenon. There are Tough Men in Al Qaeda, and the Minutemen, and the Animal Liberation Front, and airport security lines, and even on the talking head shows in the media, and if any of them realized how similar their base philosophies really are they would lose their precarious little minds.

The Tough Man generally does not have a sense of humor. As you might imagine. They’re not even very good at defeating their few real enemies; dangerous people are easier to deal with when you don’t mistake them for pulp villains. Which goes a long way towards explaining why Pyke and his captors were so civil with each other.

Ninety years later the striking thing about To Ruhleben–and Back is that so many people are trying not to be monsters. Pyke’s arrested politely. The officer is firm, not angry. He and Pyke talk–not an exchange of shouted orders and frightened confessions, but a conversation. Pyke lets slip that he’s been to a museum and seen a Velasquez painting. The officer loves Velasquez. He and Pyke discuss Velasquez all the way back to the station.

Pyke suffered quite a bit from neglect. Deliberate brutality, bullying… not so much. It’s not that his position wasn’t serious. From the Germans’ perspective Pyke was a spy. There was a very real possibility that he would be shot. But this was nothing personal. The people who arrested and incarcerated Pyke saw no reason not to keep up a certain minimum standard of politeness. I get the feeling that if they’d decided to shoot him, they would have gone on being polite right up to the moment bullet met head.

Today this disinterested kindness is almost surreal. Never mind spies, we don’t treat ordinary criminals this well. Potheads. Unruly protestors. Bicyclists. People merely in places someone thinks they shouldn’t be. Even the simplest arrests are about the shout of mad rage, the knee between the shoulderblades, the electric scorch of the taser. It doesn’t matter what that guy on the other end of the law did. He could be a killer or a jaywalker. Either way he’s put himself outside the human race.

This isn’t life. It’s melodrama. The world seen as through the pages of a pulp novel; dimly, and obscured by multiple exclamation points.

It’s good to be reminded that not everyone thinks like this. But that’s not the main reason to read the book. It deserves to be read because Geoffrey Pyke understood that although life can be exciting, it isn’t exciting in the way you expect… so he looked for what was absurd, and funny, and unexpected. And that’s a hell of a lot more interesting than any ordinary adventure.

McSweeney’s has a couple of short excerpts from the book, and an interview with editor Paul Collins.

1 thought on “Review: To Ruhleben–and Back

  1. I bought this book about two years ago and have only really skimmed it but it definitely sounds like it’s in need of further study.

    I picked up several of the books in the Collins Library; it’s a decidedly mixed bag like all of Mcsweeney’s. English as She is Spoke is hilarious but more like light bathroom reading. The Riddle of the Traveling Skull is unreadable, though, which is a shame a sit sounds like it could be a fun read but is just some of the most awkwardly constructed prose I’ve ever laid eyes on. There’s a new one out, The Lunatic at Large which sounds like Jeeves and Wooster on Acid.

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