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The Powell's Playlist | June 18, 2014 1 comment
Like many writers, I'm constantly haunting coffee shops with a laptop out and my headphones on. I listen to a lot of music while I write, and songs... Continue »
The True Story of the Whiskey Robber: Improbable Modern-Day Robin Hoodby Julian Rubinstein
Here's roughly what I knew about the Whiskey Robber when I left for Budapest: From 1993-1999, the so-called Whiskey Robber was a prolific and rather outrageous bank robber, who'd knocked off twenty-nine banks, post offices, and travel agencies while living a double life as the hockey goalie for Hungary's biggest pro team. His name was Attila. He was from Transylvania. He was being referred to as the "modern-day Robin Hood." Just over a year earlier he had escaped from a fourth story window of the city jail on bedsheets, prompting a massive international manhunt, and engendering the support of more than 80 percent of his countrymen.
As a magazine piece, it was a no-brainer, except that (warning sign) it had taken much of the last sixteen months to gain access to Attila, and even then I still wasn't assured of getting to him. But I was on a mission. As more of the elements of this story began coming into focus, I really felt that I might never come across another story this good in my life.
I'd always loved what is generally called literary nonfiction, true stories told in novelistic style and form, works like Norman Mailer's Executioner's Song, Truman Capote's In Cold Blood, John Berendt's Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, Susan Orlean's Orchid Thief, and Simon Winchester's Professor and the Madman. Just like defense wins championships in sports, great characters can make a story, both in fiction and nonfiction. And they were the first things that stood out about this one.
I remember my first lunch with Attila's hockey teammate "Bubu," a gigantic Transylvanian who made a point of telling me he had a gun under his leather coat and left me with his business card that read, "Unemployed hockey player." When I met with George Magyar, Attila's former mayoral-candidate lawyer, he answered his mobile phone while we were having dinner and told his caller (according to my interpreter who whispered into my ear) that he was "just sitting down to dinner with a Hollywood movie producer." (A minute later he sheepishly handed me the phone; the caller was my Hungarian photographer.)
I also interviewed many of the police officers who worked the case, including the chief of the Budapest robbery department, Lajos Varju, who had chased the mysterious Whiskey Robber for years before retiring from the force. Lajos was doing his best to sound confident in his responses to my questions when his girlfriend blurted out, "What are you talking about? The whole country was laughing at you."
Then there was Attila, whom I first interviewed during a break in his sentencing hearing at the Budapest Metropolitan Court. Surrounded by guards, one of whom was leashed to him by a thick nylon rope, Attila answered my question about whether he'd consider escaping again by eyeing his captors and muttering, "Regarding this I couldn't say, I wouldn't be sincere."
I would soon learn the following other details about Attila Ambrus: He was an accomplished animal pelt smuggler. His first job with the hockey team was driving the Zamboni. He'd worked for a while as a gravedigger. He'd once lived in a horse paddock. He was arguably the worst hockey goalie ever to play the sport.
Normally by the time my magazine pieces are published (months after I've turned them in), I've moved on to the next one. In this case, I moved to Budapest. I took an apartment. I spent five weeks in the Hungarian Supreme Court building, poring through thousands of documents about the case. I traveled through Transylvania, pretending to like palinka, a Hungarian brandy offered to me by everyone I met. Over a three-year period, I interviewed hundreds of people. And I spent twelve full days in a small airless room in a maximum security prison on the Hungarian-Slovakian border with Attila, whom I got to know better than most of my friends back home.
Reporting this story was often demoralizing. Since Attila's trial, he had become a polarizing figure in Hungary. While about half the country continued to support him, the rest became angry and ashamed that a bank robber had become one of their first exportable products in the new age of capitalism. And, as I was there to write about it for the American media, many people disdained my very presence. To them, I was the stereotypical American: opportunistic, selfish, and unable to understand nuance or truly empathize with another people. (And then 9-11 happened.)
At first, the judgments stung, but ultimately they helped me understand the context of the story on a deeper level. Like no other story I had read or come across, this one traced the arc of one of the most colorful and defining times in modern history, the post-communist era. And there was no way to tell that story without showing the West's (and in particular, America's) hulking role in reshaping the region after the fall of communism, a role I found particularly compelling given what was going on in other parts of the world while I was reporting. This was an epic, a story of both history and international politics that happened to be illustrated by the most compelling and entertaining narrative I'd ever heard. And since only some of the bigger story had been told in the books and articles I exhaustively read, I wanted to tell the real story of those times. I spent months going through translated Hungarian newspaper documents and interviewing politicians, policemen, and regular people.
After about two years of research and reporting I got a studio in Red Hook, Brooklyn, where the only thing allowed past the door was Whiskey Robber book material. There was so much information swirling around in my head that I needed to get hold of two things: structure and tone. I realized that because of the detailed reporting I had from the police, I could tell the story with a two-pronged approach, intertwining the police perspective with that of Attila's. It would provide me a built-in suspense because the reader knows that the two paths are going to cross but not how or when, and I had a lot of good twists to work with. But in order to make sure the pacing was right, I literally storyboarded the whole book on note cards and a dry erase board.
Finding the right tone was a more difficult task at first, but for some reason I remember thinking of two films. One was Guy Ritchie's Snatch, because of how inventively and humorously he presents his ensemble cast. (I also thought Steven Soderberg did a great job of this in Ocean's Eleven; and Elmore Leonard is a master of this.) And, though it may sound strange, the other movie I kept thinking about was Roberto Benigni's Life Is Beautiful. What I thought was so brilliant about that film was how he was able to take such tragic material and basically deliver what was in essence a comedy, albeit a deeply moving one. That was the high-wire act I attempted to achieve with Ballad of the Whiskey Robber.
Nonetheless, as gratifying as the reviews have been, the one that means the most to me is the one that probably no one in North America but those of you reading this essay will see. It appeared in a publication called Elet Es Irodalom (Life and Literature), the most respected literary magazine in Hungary. It wrote that Ballad of the Whiskey Robber was "one of the best books ever written about post-1989 Hungary. This is not enough in itself to make it terribly annoying but there is more to it: Arguably this may be the best piece of serious literature tackling the Hungarian experience."