The Ballad of the Whiskey Robber

By Julian Rubinstein

No one is quite sure if someone named Robin Hood ever patrolled Sherwood Forest with a gang of Merry Men, robbing from the rich and giving to the poor. The story has always had a certain resonance though because of its archetypal social critique. Of course the Sheriff and his taxmen are the bad guys – they represent a corrupt social order, tyrannical (Prince John had usurped the authority of the absent good King Richard) and oppressive. And when the Law and the State are so obviously wrong, freedom and justice take up residence in the forest, a state of nature.

More recently, in Kevin Costner’s forgettable film adaptation of the legend, Robin becomes an anachronistic apostle of (American) democracy, upsetting the apple carts of feudal England. Robin is all about people power.

What strikes one the most about Julian Rubinstein’s spirited and provocative real-life account of Hungary’s famous “Whiskey Robber”, Atilla Ambrus, is how much of the spirit of the old geste remains even when transposed to a modern capitalist democracy and an entirely foreign culture.

The ballad of a latter-day Robin Hood (or latter-day Sandor Rozsa, the nineteenth-century Hungarian Robin Hood) has two necessary elements: a corrupt social order and a charismatic and honorable thief. Atilla Ambrus is the latter and more. A political refugee, pelt smuggler, man-about-town, atrocious hockey goalie, hard drinker, and armed robber (who never shot or even attempted to shoot anyone), he justified his crimes to his accomplice Gabi in terms any classical laissez-faire capitalist could sympathize with:

“This money belongs to the people,” Atilla said, eyeing the concrete encrusted OTP, which during communism had been the only bank chain in Hungary. “Plus, the more we get, the more we’re going to put back in the system over time anyway.”
“It’s like we’re not even robbing. We’re just borrowing the money for a while,” Gabi added.
“That’s why we never take money from customers or employees,” Attila said.
“It’s out of the question,” Gabi said.

And don’t laugh. Wasn’t showering money on whores a way of giving money to the poor? Compared to the looting of Enron, weren’t Atilla’s three-minute snatch-and-grab jobs victimless crimes? It would be too easy to write his rationalizations off as just an expression of Hungary’s cynicism and malaise as its economy was transformed after the fall of communism into a sort of wide open “anything goes” Western capitalism. As recent business headlines in the U.S. can testify, gangster capitalism and thieves in high places are not phenomena confined to Eastern Europe. Atilla is just a young man trying to make it in a world where primary needs have become commodified. “Our freedom is everything,” he explains to Gabi, “but it’s not worth anything without money.” That part of the ballad of the Whiskey Robber has a universal appeal.

But all of this is just one way of reading and enjoying the book. Ballad of the Whiskey Robber is as much a comic adventure as a true crime story and fascinating piece of social reportage. And with Atilla’s inclusion in the encyclopedia of Hungarian history as “a national fairy tale hero” it is also something else: a story about the making of myths, and how heroes only half write themselves. The other half is written by police, politicians, TV announcers, journalists, and the anonymous oral historians of Sherwood Forest.

Review first published online May 2, 2005.


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