Lebor's debut fiction is a political thriller with a meaty conspiracy theory


BOOK OF THE DAY: DECLAN BURKEreviews The Budapest Protocol By Adam Lebor Reportage Press 314pp, £16.99

IT WILL come as no surprise to some that the European Union is a fiendish Nazi plot, and that the euro is just one of the tools employed by the Fourth Reich to facilitate the flow of capital from one country to another. They may be disappointed to learn that this is the case only between the covers of Adam Lebor’s political thriller.

The Budapest Protocolhas as its protagonist Alex Farkas, British-Hungarian journalist working for a newspaper in the Hungarian capital. The arrival in Hungary of Frank Sanzlermann, on the campaign trail in the imminent election for the new position of European President, sets in train a number of events, some of them personal to Alex, such as the apparent murder of his grandfather. Other developments are political, including the establishment of a quasi-paramilitary force, an upsurge in nationalist and fascist sentiment, and the growing persecution of the Roma people.

The political quickly becomes personal for Alex when he discovers his grandfather’s testimony about a protocol established in Budapest in 1944, between the Nazis and German and Swiss bankers and industrialists. Is it possible that the EU is the modern face of Nazism?

A foreign correspondent of almost two decades’ standing, Adam Lebor is a critically acclaimed writer of non-fiction, including Hitler’s Secret Bankers, which was short-listed for the Orwell Prize. With his debut fiction, he has created a likeable and plausible character in Alex Farkas. Alex is probably as close as thriller protagonists come to an Everyman: he is bedevilled by doubts, soundly thrashed in physical combat, and largely dependent on women who are cleverer than he is to solve the various puzzles that present themselves. All of which, it must be said, contributes hugely to a page-turning experience that crackles off the page, not least in Lebor’s descriptions of the vibrant melting-pot that is Budapest.

Given that Lebor is steeped in the politics of eastern Europe, however, the most frustrating aspect of The Budapest Protocol is that the political events depicted lack the kind of subtlety we have come to expect from more experienced practitioners of the craft, such as John Le Carré. In Lebor’s novel, Hungary seems to swing to fascism within a matter of weeks, with riotous enthusiasm; parallels are drawn between the Jewish Holocaust and the experience of the Roma gypsies; and Lebor falls into the trap of the first-time novelist in rendering the bad guys cartoonishly sinister, without a single redeeming feature.

Unfortunately, for my preconceived notions at least, Hungary itself appears to lack the kind of subtlety we have come to expect from modern democracies. The recent electoral swing to the right suggests that the substance if not the detail of Lebor’s theory is correct – Jobbik, the far-right Hungarian party, won 15 per cent of the vote in this month’s EU elections, almost that of the ruling socialist party.

Jobbik’s uniformed wing, the “Magyar Gárda”, dress in black paramilitary uniforms similar to those of the Arrow Cross, the Hungarian Nazi collaborators.

As for Roma persecution, there was a recent state-sponsored attempt to mass-sterilise Roma women in Slovakia, which only ended in 2007, while anti-Roma tensions in Hungary have soared in the last number of years.

With his debut, Adam Lebor has given us a page-turning thriller with a meaty conspiracy theory that is rooted in historical fact and bristling with warnings against complacency. Would that all debut novels were so ambitious, timely and relevant.

Declan Burke is a freelance writer and author. He is the editor of Crime Always Pays,a blog dedicated to Irish crime fiction.