The Emperor – Ryszard Kapuściński

28 May

KapuccinoAfter the deposition of Haile Selassie in 1974, which ended the ancient rule of the Abyssinian monarchy, Ryszard Kapuściński travelled to Ethiopia and sought out surviving courtiers to tell their stories. Here, their eloquent and ironic voices depict the lavish, corrupt world they had known – from the rituals, hierarchies and intrigues at court to the vagaries of a ruler who maintained absolute power over his impoverished people. They describe his inexorable downfall as the Ethiopian military approach, strange omens appear in the sky and courtiers vanish, until only the Emperor and his valet remain in the deserted palace, awaiting their fate. Dramatic and mesmerising, The Emperor is one of the great works of reportage and a haunting epitaph on the last moments of a dying regime.

Ethiopia was brought to the world’s attention by both Jonathan Dimbleby’s The Unknown Famine (which brought pressure and condemnation to the Selassie regime from the international community) and the original Live Aid concerts.  The former is an imperative moment in this emotive book.

Kapuściński planned this as the first part of a prospective trilogy depicting the fall of the three rulers, the other two being the fall of the Pahlavi the last Shah of Iran and a third book that never made it to publication – owing to perestroika – exploring the eventual downfall of Idi Amin.

As a journalist, Mr K. took it upon himself to risk visiting the remnants of the old royal court hidden away for fear of reprisals all around Addis Ababa.  Through their eyes we enter an archaic world of paranoia, competition and sycophancy, where constant palace maneuverings and the gaining of power are more important than the running of the country which is polluted by corrupt officials and a poverty-stricken populace.

Haile Selassie was treated as if he was a God, he played a cunning and repulsive game of division through inter court machinations in order for his rule to be properly cemented and go unchallenged.  Whilst the fawning went on, there was little in the way of reform unless it becomes necessary to appease the masses.  The opulence of the courtiers when contrasted with the rest of the country makes for a terribly sickening side by side with those images of famine victims we remember so vividly.

The first part of the book depicts Sallasie’s daily routine, interspersed with remembrances and not only it’s a powerful and eye-opening introduction to the sovereign and his administration.  Most striking are the phrases Kapuściński says were used to describe the Emperor – his most exalted majesty, supreme majesty, his magnanimous highness, most extraordinary majesty etc – which are cringeworthy but are still with us in a less overt extent in today’s society.   These are most likely affectations added by the author allowing the reader to imagine a far off place laced with myth rather than part of daily court life, the irony of these phrases as the book goes on will not be lost on the reader.

The further two parts show stability slipping as coups threaten the power base and the obsession with holding onto influence ratchets up quickly.  The gulf between the upper and lower classes showed how remote the ‘high ups’ were from both sanity and understand the living standards and quality of life of those around them.  The blind rewarding of loyalty to this backdrop and the sheer manipulation of the population are both bewildering, even a stagnant regime has to change, reform and embrace new ideas, yet this one simply showcased its inability to do so, even in the face of the horror of famine and destruction.  And yet this was only fifty odd years ago.

When the inevitable happens, there is a double meaning as the protracted downfall is almost a hidden to message to the Polish and other readers behind the Iron Curtain as it shows an underlining of the politics of a decaying reign and the resulting ridiculous propaganda that stems from desperation.  It is impressive that something that could be considered so subversive was allowed past the Soviet censors.

For all of this though, there is a question over the way K. chronicles his finds.  The reader puts their trust in the journalist yet some things are unreliable, this should not detract too much from what it does give us outside of its narrative issues but it will make one wish to research more into the murky world of the Ethiopian court and the disparities throughout that country.  The ambiguities of fact are something that we should always question, nevertheless this is a very compulsive if frequently nauseating read, despite the small inconsistencies and not only educates on a torrid era for the country but also an underlining of what happens when a small band of people are left with most of the wealth.


Posted by on 28/05/2016 in History, Journalism


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32 responses to “The Emperor – Ryszard Kapuściński

  1. Alastair Savage

    28/05/2016 at 15:41

    It doesn’t surprise me that the Communists allowed it. They approved of anything that revealed the decadence of monarchical governments. I doubt they would even have noticed the parallel with their own regime, showing what a sly writer this guy was. Sounds fascinating.


    • Ste J

      28/05/2016 at 15:48

      Fair point actually. He looked to the West and much as the East as well so that probably didn’t help and the stamping down of Marxism was probably the last straw. I have a book on subversive images in art from the Communist period, may have to give that one a reread and review soon. The Emperor is a book that demands to be read in few sittings, well worth a read for the insight.


  2. Liz

    28/05/2016 at 18:31

    Bravo – sounds like an important read, thanks


    • Ste J

      28/05/2016 at 18:55

      It is yet another layer of interesting perspective that makes the reader think. There are two more of his books sat glancing in this direction which pleases Ste.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. shadowoperator

    29/05/2016 at 12:23

    Sounds like an interesting book–can you give a couple of simple “for examples” about how the reporting was unreliable?


    • shadowoperator

      29/05/2016 at 12:36

      P.S. I know I told you about that fine but very violent and disturbing movie called “The Last King of Scotland,” which was based on the last days of Idi Amin’s reign. There was actually a quite horrific scene when the ruler punished the young hero visitor for cheating with the ruler’s favorite wife–God, why do people dare do anything like that in such a horrible atmosphere/ And needless to say what happened to her! But that’s all the spoiler I’m going to give you, you’re going to have to rent the movie! Do you think they’ll make a movie of the first two parts of this series someday?


      • Ste J

        31/05/2016 at 21:33

        I certainly do remember, it is so rare that I get to watch films these days but I will keep an eye out for it, Forest Whitaker is a great actor. This book wouldn’t make a good movie, it doesn’t jazz up the violence or have such horrible tortures to it but perhaps one of those documentary style films could work…


    • Ste J

      31/05/2016 at 21:28

      The honorifics don’t exist in the Ethiopian language, the claim that Salassie couldn’t read is also completely inaccurate, it does seem like the edges have been blurred but the main meat of the story seems legit as the kidz say.


  4. clarepooley33

    30/05/2016 at 00:27

    I can only just remember Haile Selassie’s fall from power – I had more important things to think about at the time – O’ Level courses and trying to get my parents to let me stay out late. The Live Aid reports and concerts of a few years later are very clear in my memory though. This book sounds very interesting despite Mr K not being entirely trustworthy in his facts.


    • Ste J

      31/05/2016 at 21:18

      What he seems to do more than anything is allow the reader to accept what they already think they know about courtly life and incorporate that into the narrative. It’s fancy dressing but it does make the reader wonder to what extent this goes to.

      Liked by 1 person

      • clarepooley33

        31/05/2016 at 21:27

        It’s as well to remain a little sceptical when reading certain history books and biographies.


        • Ste J

          31/05/2016 at 21:29

          Anything that encourages research into a subject is fine by me!

          Liked by 1 person

  5. Bumba

    30/05/2016 at 03:04

    I’ve long been interested in Ethiopia, I guess because of contact with Jamaicans and Ethiopians. The King of Judah is still revered in many circles, but the game of kings is generally rotten to the core.


    • Ste J

      31/05/2016 at 21:16

      Ain’t that the truth! I find it very intriguing those links and also the Jewish community that used to love in Ethiopia thus conjuring many stories of the the legendary King Solomon’s Mines.


      • Bumba

        31/05/2016 at 23:56

        They say that the holy ark was surreptitiously smuggled out of Israel by the queen of Sheba and brought to Ethiopia where it continues to be hidden in an undisclosed church. The Pope recognized this claim apparently, which means that Harrison Ford was wasting his time in the first Indiana Jones movie, not to mention all the movie-goers (who did see an entertaining movie nonetheless).


        • Ste J

          01/06/2016 at 08:35

          I’m familiar with the story, only one person can see the Ark, whoever runs the church, anybody else looks at it and they will die so we throw scepticism out of the window and accept such a story. I suppose the Pope couldn’t really demand proof, its more in line with him to accept things on faith lol. If only Indy would have read the papers he would have known, too much cavorting in India and various other countries, saving the world will cause a guy to be out of pocket and knowledge I guess. I hate crystal skulls these days…


  6. Letizia

    30/05/2016 at 14:35

    What an interesting read! Sorry I haven’t been around much, catching up now!


  7. Jilanne Hoffmann

    31/05/2016 at 06:48

    Nothing good ever comes from huge income inequality. Think of the Romanovs. So many others. The U.S. is hovering uncomfortably close to the abyss.


    • Ste J

      31/05/2016 at 21:08

      I hear you, we aren’t far behind you…some investigative journalist seems to think the UK is the most corrupt place in Earth for business dealings which is saying something.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Jilanne Hoffmann

        31/05/2016 at 21:31

        Wow. That IS saying something. Would love to see the basis for that argument.


        • Ste J

          31/05/2016 at 21:36

          It is shocking the way hardly any tax is paid by big companies who have their headquarters abroad and of you want to sue somebody about anything, take it to a British court, we’ll accept anything because the lawyers are greedy and quite a lot of the judges seem to be a shambles. Everybody is being priced out of London as well, it’s cheaper to go abroad for a week than go for a weekend in London in some cases.


  8. Love, Life and Whatever

    31/05/2016 at 14:45

    Something from a Historian and a Journalist….with political tinge….kinda book my husband would surely prefer.


    • Ste J

      31/05/2016 at 21:10

      It’s a good read, chilling in places but informative and well worth a look.


  9. Christy Birmingham

    31/05/2016 at 17:22

    I appreciate the fairness of the reviews you write, and by that I mean how you balance the small inaccuracies you note with what you learn from the pages. I think it sounds like a read that would teach me a lot but that I would have to take at face value in some regards given the few inconsistencies you pointed out. Another read done, my friend!


    • Ste J

      31/05/2016 at 21:25

      It’s very rare that I just hate on a book, although there are a few…there are usually some positives that even if I don’t enjoy the book can be talked about. I believe a lot of the book isn’t tampered with in the main ways, it seems more the cosmetic flourishes that have been added. It is a very informative book though and helps push me to read more of this type of book.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. Resa

    03/06/2016 at 19:31

    Ste J
    An excellent review of a book I’ve never read, but know the history of the subject. It sounds like a book I’d love to read, if time was on my side. Still reading script revisions and trying to keep up with the daily changes on the series.
    I wonder why the Rastas in Jamaica embraced him. Is that in the book?
    I hear Sensitive Skin (the show I designed the costumes for last summer) will be out in the UK in a month. I’m hoping you’ll get to see my work.


    • Ste J

      05/06/2016 at 10:15

      I shall keep an eye out for it then, it’ll be good to have a look at your work off of the blog as I know it will compliment your talent on them. There isn’t really any reference to Rastafarianism as the book deals primarily with the inner court politics and then the scope is widened to the west of the country. The book starts a lot later than the initial explosion of that belief in the 1930’s.



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