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The Emperor: Downfall of an Autocrat Paperback – March 13, 1989

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 176 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage (March 13, 1989)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0679722033
  • ISBN-13: 978-0679722038
  • Product Dimensions: 5.1 x 0.5 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 8.8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (60 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #445,138 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews Review

Haile Selassie, His Most Puissant Majesty and Distinguished Highness the Emperor of Ethiopia, enjoyed a 44-year reign until his own army gave him the boot in 1974. In the days following the coup, the Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski traveled to Ethiopia and sought out members of the imperial court for interviews.

His composite portrait of Selassie's crumbling imperium is an astonishing, wildly funny creation, beginning with the very first interview. "It was a small dog," recalls an anonymous functionary, "a Japanese breed. His name was Lulu. He was allowed to sleep in the Emperor's great bed. During various ceremonies, he would run away from the Emperor's lap and pee on dignitaries' shoes. The august gentlemen were not allowed to flinch or make the slightest gesture when they felt their feet getting wet. I had to walk among the dignitaries and wipe the urine from their shoes with a satin cloth. This was my job for ten years." (Well, it's a living.)

Elsewhere, the interviewees venture into tragic or grotesque or downright unbelievable terrain. Kapuscinski has shaped their testimonies into an eloquent whole, and while he never alludes to the totalitarian regime that ruled his native Poland during the same period, the analogy is impossible to ignore.


"[The Emperor] transcends reportage, becoming a nightmare of power... An unforgettable, fiercely comic, and finally compassionate book."
—Salman Rushdie

"Kapuscinski transcends the limitations of journalism and writes with the narrative power of a Conrad or Kipling or Orwell."
—Blake Morrison

"A Stunning exhibit; the interviewed subjects. . .enunciate their memories of the days of Haile Selassie with a magical elegance that. . .achieves poetry and aphorism."
—John Updike, The New Yorker

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Customer Reviews

It reads like a good fiction book.
Barnabas Howard
It is a read that can't be put down and I would advise buying more than 1 copy since you will invariably give a copy away to a dear friend.
A McPheeters
This book takes you inside the palace during crucial times of Haile Selassie's reign.

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

26 of 27 people found the following review helpful By doomsdayer520 HALL OF FAME on August 24, 2003
Format: Paperback
This is a very unique book presenting a seemingly casual investigation of the last days of Haile Selassie's reign in Ethiopia. Note that this is not a history of Ethiopia or Selassie's reign, so prior knowledge on these subjects would be an advantage. Kapuscinski offers clandestine interviews with members of the Emperor's court and ministries, as they watched the slow and rather bizarre downfall of the autocrat. While non-Ethiopians often see Selassie as an enlightened visionary and Moses-like leader of his people, the reality was much different closer to home. Here we find an entrenched demagogue more concerned with preserving his power with little knowledge of the lives of his subjects. He surrounded himself with yes-men with the same self-preserving motives, and like any fading dictator he regularly purged anyone even remotely connected to independent thinkers. In one interview, a member of the court regrets sending his son to college, as the young man became infested with ideas that were not loyal to the Emperor, though they were probably accurate. Kapuscinski's anonymous subjects underhandedly point out their leader's faults while constantly heaping titles on him like "His Enlightened Majesty" or "His Benevolent Highness." This indicates the leader's cult of personality and his employees' pathological fear of losing his favor. We then see the classic fall of an out-of-touch despot, as he was ousted in one of the weirdest revolutions of all time. This unique book seems like lightweight reporting at the surface, but ultimately offers numerous lessons in power and corruption, and Selassie's story offers many parallels for autocrats around the world and throughout history. [~doomsdayer520~]
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15 of 16 people found the following review helpful By on July 13, 1999
Format: Paperback
All hail His August Majesty!! That is what Haile Selassie heard from a nation of people that worshipped, but feared the King of Kings. During his most powerful years as Emperor of Ethiopia His Imperial Majesty was the most powerful person in this ancient culture. As Kapuscinski relates through eloquent anecdotes, his power and national approval would soon change.
The book is structured into three chapters, The Throne, It's Coming, It's Coming, and The Collapse. Imperial Palace inhabitants relate stories that describe the feelings and attitudes of those closest to the Emperor. Kapuscinski gives you a sense of what it was like to be in the palace in times of great affluence and abundance. Just when you thought it could not get any better, the feeling of revolution sets in. He describes how the people began to tire of the monarchy, loose respect for power, and grow increasingly hungry. It was captivating to read how the dignitaries tried to hold on to their imperious way of life, while the revolution was taking place outside the palace gates.
This book takes you inside the palace during crucial times of Haile Selassie's reign. You get a sense of what the people were thinking, but did anyone ever know what Haile Selassie was actually thinking?
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11 of 13 people found the following review helpful By "bayberrymoon" on February 6, 2000
Format: Paperback
(That's the polish original title.) I think it's worth saying, that in Poland, in the 4th class of high school it's obligatory to read for all the students.'Emperor' was also included in a list of 100 most important non-fictional books of the century ( I don't actually remember the name of the magazine, that prepared the list). It is the most famous book by Ryszard Kapuscinski, famous for the topic he's chosen to write about; for it's beauty and simplicity of style and the massage it carries.Famous for it's huge dose of emotions.Famous for it's beauty.Telling a story of Hajle Sellasje, the emperor of Ethiopia, Kapuscinski shows us the tragedy of Africa, the never-solved problems and curse it has to fight with. He shows us the essence of power, it's danger and instability. "Emperor" is probably the most comprehensive book about authocratic system ever written. We are told the story of the emperor by the people who used to be his servants and clerks. The author has spent years in Africa, South America and Asia, as a war-correspondent.He's seen the downfalls of various governments,uprises and wars.In "Emperor" he shows us his experiences in the simplest and most beautiful way ever.
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12 of 15 people found the following review helpful By LAM on September 12, 2001
Format: Paperback
Ryszard Kapuscinski's ability to get "inside" the foreign conflicts he covers is quite remarkable.
In "The Emperor," Kapuscinski details the rise and fall of Ethiopian King Haile Selassie who, for nearly his entire reign, was regarded as a god on earth by his people. In stark prose and devastating imagery, Kapuscinski lays out the excesses of the Selassie regime - excesses that ultimately led to Selassie being overthrown. In one particularly moving passage, Kapuscinski describes how leftover food from a regal banquet is thrown down from a window in the King's mansion to starving townspeople nearby. In that passage, Kapuscinski lays out the line between the lavishness in which Selassie basked and the squalor in which most of his subjects existed.
Arguably, the single greatest aspect of Kapuscinski as a journalist is his healthy respect for -- and knowledge of when to provide - the history of the place he's covering. In "The Emperor," Kapuscinski provides sufficient background on the Ethiopian conception of rulers as deities, as well as good detail about the wholesale slaughter of Ethiopians during the war with Italy in 1935. But he doesn't overdo it with the history, and that's what makes Kapuscinski's writing so good. As his later books, such as "Imperium," about the fall of the Soviet Union, show, Kapuscinski is a much better reporter than he is a historian. When he is writing about wars, revolts, uprisings, or other events he is witnessing firsthand, Kapuscinski is at his best.
Of all the works Kapuscinski produced during his years with the Warsaw News Agency, "The Emperor" is probably the best. As with "Another Day of Life," Kapuscinski's book about the Angolan Civil War, "The Emperor" lays bare a tyrannical political regime, and provides insights into why it collapsed.
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