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The Emperor: Downfall of an Autocrat Paperback – March 13, 1989
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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."
"Kapuscinski transcends the limitations of journalism and writes with the narrative power of a Conrad or Kipling or Orwell."
"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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First, the whole figure of a man changes. What had been slender and trim-waisted now starts to become a square silhouette. It is a massive and solemn square: a symbol of the solemnity and weight of power. We can already see that this is not just anybody’s silhouette, but that of visible dignity and responsibility. A slowing down of movements accompanies this change in the figure. A man who has been singled out by His Distinguished Majesty will not jump, run, frolic, or cut a caper. No. His step is solemn: he sets his feet firmly on the ground, bending his body slightly forward to show his determination to push through adversity, ordering precisely the movement of his hands so as to avoid nervous disorganized gesticulation. Furthermore, the facial features become solemn, almost stiffened, more worried and closed, but still capable of a momentary change to optimism or approval. (34)
The man becomes old, he becomes slow, he becomes massive and solemn as he attempt to stifle his quirks to fit into that stagnant court atmosphere. Power sits heavily on his shoulders. All of these observations become ironic when one realizes, by reading through Kapucinski’s piece, that in fact the ministers spend most of their time not doing their jobs, but hanging around court just to catch the Emperor’s eye to indicate their “unshakable loyalty”. (50) And that, moreover, the Emperor doesn’t like his ministers to be good at their jobs, so that he “shined by contrast”. (33)
Kapucinski doesn’t need to write a voluminous tome in order to convey what life was like under the repressive rule of Emperor Haile Selassie. Instead he chooses a few details that stick out in the mind: such as the specific way in which a new minister’s body posture changes upon his promotion to power. There is something about each of these images that causes the reader to pause and think, and remember them afterwards. Five Stars.
The Kindle edition has some minor typos (mainly split words). Nothing that makes the reading too uncomfortable.
Still, this description of life within the Ethiopian royal palace during the last days of the reign of Hailie Selassie (a hero in the West because of his successful opposition to the Italian invasion preceding World War II) provides a fine description of the sycophants, bullies, and idiots who hang around to lick up the slops as a totalitarian regime enters its final days.
Well worth reading.
If you like this book, you may be interested in The Ends of the Earth: A Journey at the Dawn of the Twenty-first Century by Robert D. Kaplan.