After 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.