District VIII by Adam LeBor – Review
By Barney Bardsley
Hungary – a tiny country of just ten million people, sunk in the very heart of central Europe – has, over the past few years, found itself in international headlines, for all the wrong reasons. Under the strong hand of right wing prime minister Viktor Orbán, the country has lurched from the ”goulash communism” of its long years in the Soviet bloc, to a self-confessed ”illiberal democracy”, with government clamp downs on the judiciary, the electoral system and the media, and with more than a whiff of demagoguery in the air.
Corruption is alleged at the highest levels. Anti-semitic, anti-Roma, anti-EU and anti-refugee rhetoric fills the official airwaves. For a country that has so recently found its freedom, and is itself a member of the European Union, it seems intent on becoming shackled, once again, to the dictates of authoritarianism.
One shameful moment stands out in its recent history. It was the summer of 2015: when a tidal wave of refugees from war torn Syria and other Middle Eastern conflict zones, hit the country, passing through Budapest’s Keleti Station – a traditional gateway from the East – on their way to sanctuary in the West. Rather than allow the refugees safe and swift passage to Austria and Germany, the Hungarian government simply refused to let them leave. The whole station was sealed shut. No one was allowed to enter or exit. And in the sweltering heat of high summer, the centre of cosmopolitan Budapest became a camp of displaced peoples: unable to return home – yet forbidden to go forward.
“Informed and imaginative”
Stuck in transit. No food, water, money or rights. (In the end, they voted with their feet – scores of men, women and children, walking the hundred miles to the Austrian border. It is probably pictures like these, on television screens throughout Europe, that convinced Angela Merkel to open Germany’s borders in the same year and take in one million refugees.)
Writer and foreign correspondent Adam LeBor – who shares his time between Budapest and London, and has nearly thirty years experience of writing about the former Eastern European states – has chosen this precise and contentious moment in Hungary’s history as the setting for his new thriller, District VIII. The eighth district – Joseph Town – is a bustling part of downtown Pest, part-gentrified – even billed as Budapest’s new Soho – and part-wild and semi-criminal. It all depends which side of the city ring road you find yourself in.
Keleti Station sits right in the heart of District VIII, and has long been associated with drugs, prostitution and inner-city crime. In LeBor’s informed and imaginative – even lurid – writing, the place becomes somewhere even more sinister: a centre of people-trafficking, of low life violence and of high level collusion in the illegal trade of money and passports, set amid the human tragedy of the refugee crisis. It even becomes a murderous scene, where Islamic terror suspects are secretly channelled through to the West: all sanctioned by the Hungarian government itself, in a cynical attempt to destabilise western countries, whilst aggrandising itself.
LeBor has long been fascinated by Roma culture and politics. So he makes his main character here a likeable Gypsy cop called Balthazar Kovacs, who manages to uncover an elaborate money-and-people-laundering plot, whilst revealing much about his Roma family life and customs in the process. The story is daring and elaborate, even implicating the Hungarian government – right up to the (fictional) Prime Minister himself – in deeds of murder and corruption.
For those who like a pacy thriller, wherever it may be set, this book will not disappoint, whilst those who know Budapest, will find the story both fascinating and confusing in equal measure. LeBor namechecks and describes large swathes of the city’s geography and mores with consummate ease – but he is also obliged to change many names, and disguise the politics of the status quo, since this is, after all, a work of fiction… Thus the country’s rulers are not the actual incumbents, FIDESZ, but some imagined (and exceedingly corrupt) Social Democrats. Fact meets fiction in a head on collision, requiring careful attention from the reader, in order to keep up.
But it is worth it. This is a compelling, if somewhat densely written, crime story – which will depress all those who love and know Hungary’s softer and more cultural side, but which is bang on the nose, in its unflinching exploration of what happens, when money and power and factional in-fighting become far more important than basic humanity and the rule of civilisation and of law.
‘District VIII’ by Adam LeBlor is published by Head of Zeus, paperback £8.99