Wednesday, January 14, 2009

The Whiskey Robber

Not too long ago, my wife and I were hosting a dinner party. One of the ladies present was looking for suggestions for her neighborhood book club’s next selection, a biography. I immediately went upstairs and grabbed Ballad of the Whiskey Robber by Julian Rubinstein. Our guest read the synopsis on the back of the book and then returned her glance to me. It was as though I’d handed her a crack pipe.

When Rubinstein first heard the true story of a drunken Romanian hockey player who’d become a folk hero by robbing banks amid the chaotic world of post-Soviet Hungary, he was seized with a panic known only to writers. Rubinstein simply HAD to be the one to tell the story of Attila Ambrus, the Whiskey Robber.

* * *
A goalie, Attila Ambrus would try out with the local Budapest league team, UTE. Upon seeing this audition, the coach remarked “Whatever this guy is has nothing to do with hockey.” Yet, Attila would make the team. There was an unbridled passion that came through his performance - a love of life, you could say. The coach would later explain, "It's simply amazing that there is a person on this planet who wants to be a goalie for our team so badly even though he clearly has never had anything to do with hockey before in his life."

Maybe it was his belief that life should be lived to its fullest. And no matter what it was, be it hockey or the sudden emergence of material riches accompanying the collapse of communism...Ambrus decided nothing should stand in his way. Perhaps it was this joie de vivre that propelled Attila Ambrus towards bank robbery. And rob he did...29 banks until he was finally apprehended. When you think of his MO, it's amazing it took that long.

Now keep in mind, capitalism was a new concept to this region. The mindset of the newly liberated Eastern Bloc was influenced by American gangster films in equal proportion to the surface promise of rote American business institutions. Ambrus' decision to rob banks became a logical career redirection once hockey failed to pay a living wage.

Despite his criminal career, Attila is enormously likable. He doesn't want to harm anyone. Hoping to quell the anxiety he feels before his first heist, he gets very, very drunk. Once this first robbery succeeds, Ambrus decides not to deviate from this formula, thus the legend of the Whiskey Robber is born.

As each heist ensues, we become aware how post-communist Hungary enables such a lovably inept thief to become so successful. Despite having exorcised the Soviet Union, this region feels a sort of unease of what will follow. Budapest becomes a bit dysfunctional without the Kremlin making the trains run on time. Hungarians felt adrift, perhaps vulnerable to the Western European and American venture (vulture) capitalists who seemed to immediately fill the void. Perhaps this local boy ludicrously robbing the local banks was wrong, but clearly that was preferable to foreign investors seeking to do the same subversively.

As this story progresses, Rubinstein introduces two additional characters, each trying to carve their niche in this post-Soviet wild frontier: Laszlo Juszt, the host of a 'Hungary's Most Wanted' type show and Lajos Varju, a robbery chief charged with bringing in this most notorious and visible villain, a prize he would never grasp. The Whiskey Robber soon dominates their lives.

Because this book is off the beaten path and brilliant…that means it was a gift from my brother. Many thanks, hermano.

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