Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Book Review: Ballad of the Whiskey Robber

Ballad of the Whiskey Robber: A True Story of Bank Heists, Ice Hockey, Transylvanian Pelt Smuggling, Moonlighting Detectives, and Broken Hearts    

Julian Rubinstein (2004)

HV6653.A7 R83 2004

All the trappings of a picaresque novel: an episodic work of fiction dealing with the adventures of a rough and dishonest but appealing hero.  And, Attila Ambrus – the focus of the tale - is all that and more…only it’s not fiction, despite how improbable and fantastic it reads:  it’s the true story of the emergence of post-communist Hungary into modern Europe through the tumultuous 1990’s as seen through Ambrus’ story. But, that’s not the half of it - or perhaps a little more accurately - the 80% of it. The history of modern Hungary starts with the end of the First World War and the extremely harsh Treaty of Trianon when a leading cultural and major world power was stripped of nearly 70% of its native lands (including access to the sea) leaving almost one-third of its ethnic population to the vagaries and whims, at best,  of countries not entirely sympathetic to the plight of Hungary or the Hungarians who, by the few strokes of a pen, found themselves outside the borders (and protection) of their homeland. “Hungary has always been unlucky…” is how the first sentence of the first chapter of the Ballad of the Whiskey Robber opens - which gives new meaning to the old saw…but for bad luck Hungary wouldn’t have any luck at all.

Even knowing that the Ballad of the Whiskey Robber is a true story doesn’t make it any easier to believe that it’s true: author Julian Rubinstein could be mistaken for a fabulist or Thomas Pynchon’s cousin given to the pleasures of absurdism and imagination with the stunning ability to entertain and to turn a phrase. From a person who has not yet had the pleasure visiting Budapest and Hungary, how much more the person who has lived there must appreciate and knowingly catch the subtleties of the descriptions of the boulevards, districts, train stations, parks and locales – such as Margit Island – as the almost too unbelievable tale of Attila Ambrus unfolds, set against the backdrop of Hungary moving by fits and starts into the 21st century. And, what a passage it is!

For all of the romp, pace, personalities and deadpan descriptions (where else would a police force watch reruns of Columbo as part of their “training”?), Rubenstein has fashioned a unique look at the history of a culture and country in dramatic – sometimes simultaneously hilariously and tragically so - transition from communism to capitalism with attendant problems in between. To tell the story, Rubenstein uses the up-dated form of the literary ballad which retains an elaborate and drole narrative told in prose rather than in verse. If the Ballad of the Whiskey Robber just told the story of Attila Ambrus, it would still be a highly entertaining read, perhaps like Jimmy Breslin’s The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight, only set in a more exotic locale. However, Rubenstein’s work is a dynamic and fully integrated horizontal and vertical history of the progeny of the failure of Trianon told through the life and exploits of Attila Ambrus that perfectly catches the ethos and pathos of lost homelands; displaced countrymen; promises of success; and the gulf between class, wealth and ethnic divisions.

Rubenstein adroitly gives Attila his full voice – understanding that Attila, who captured the imagination of his countrymen – is the glue that holds and propels the narrative and, in so doing, elevates the Ballad of the Whiskey Robber to the stuff of legend.