Ballad Of The Whiskey Robber, by Julian Rubinstein

The weird and wonderful antics of a Hungarian Sundance Kid
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The Independent Culture

Attila Ambrus grew up in Hungarian-speaking Transylvania in the mid-Eighties, when Romania's brittle despot Nicolae Ceausescu made speaking Hungarian in that disputed border territory an act of sedition. Attila joined a band of desperate church painters, who weren't painters, and worked on churches that didn't need painting. Their spires were the tallest vantage points from which to survey the border. Eventually, suspended beneath two freight cars, Attila crossed into Hungary.

Broke, homeless and paperless, Attila forced his way into a position as the unpaid goalie for UTE, a third-rate Budapest ice hockey team. He earned a pittance as team janitor, and took a second job as gravedigger to pay the rent on the horse paddock he moved into. Selling pens door-to-door failed to pay off mounting debts. On a trip to Austria, he chanced upon a ready market for pelts, so borrowed the team minibus, drove to Transylvania, and smuggled a load of stinking skins back through two borders.

George Best's famous line best describes Attila's manic character. He spent his cash on booze, women and cars, and the rest he just frittered, mostly on an addiction to Budapest's nine casinos. Hot pelts were not netting enough. In a wig rummaged from a discount bin and shoes three sizes too big, Attila waved a fake gun at the local postmistress in his first armed robbery.

Julian Rubinstein conveys Attila's boom-bust lifestyle with verve, playing up the spirited comedy of his heists. The Clouseau-like antics of Budapest's underfunded Robbery Department complement Attila's spree with slapstick incompetence. As his tally of banks, post offices and travel agents climbs, Attila becomes something of a folk hero - the little guy hitting back at faceless institutions, fondly dubbed "the whiskey robber" for his Dutch-courage preparation.

Western interests and the Russian mafia had plundered the newly privatised state assets, the economy was in freefall, and the black market accounted for 30 per cent of Hungary's GDP. Rubinstein captures this heady mix of economic anarchy, anti-capitalist resentment and a touch of sympathy for an underdog. Scrupulous not to hurt anyone, Attila justified his hold-ups as "a drop in the bucket" compared with the spectacular corruption within the government and police. Ballad of the Whiskey Robber is a funny and thrilling slice of modern history, told with all the charm of Butch and Sundance's flamboyant escapades.

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