Ryszard Kapuscinski: Emperor – Downfall of an Autocrat

The Emperor - Cover Image

Author: Ryszard Kapuscinski

Title: Emperor – Downfall of an Autocrat

ISBN: 0141188030

Pages: 192

The Emperor: Downfall of an Autocrat is the Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski’s account of the last days of the court of Haile Selassie, told through the eyes of the courtiers who survived his reign. Whilst I’m sure Kapuscinski would have preferred to have had direct access to Selassie himself, he never the less brilliantly pieces together the strange world of the Ethiopian court from the accounts of those who did.

All the elements of corruption, incompetence, grandiloquence and social climbing you would expect from the inner circle of a third world monarchy are in place. The life lived inside a privileged world, whilst outside the country is left to rot. All outlined in a cultivated and laconic manner by courtiers for whom this kind of ridiculous insanity is the most natural thing in the world. Oh, how the other half live.

One question that hung over my head as I read was how did this man come to be regarded as a deity by Rastafarians? A possible explanation begins to emerge as you get further into the book, as it turns out that Selassie was just about the most laid back person to have ever walked the earth. The rampant corruption and regular famines of his country are regarded as ‘just the way things are’. The jostling for position and in-fighting amongst courtiers observed with nothing more than mild amusement. Even his eventual overthrow is greeted with the observation that ‘if the revolution is good for the people, then I too, support the revolution and would not oppose my dethronement’. How more Rastafarian can you get?

It was a small dog, 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.

If you find a paragraph like this, three pages into a book, you know it’s going to be a cracker. And yet, and yet. The something that held me back from finding Emperor an even more fulfilling read was a feeling that this was territory I had seen covered before. I suspect this is not the fault of Kapuscinski whose work was probably ground breaking in its day, but high quality reportage is much more easily found on the shelves of our bookstores than when Emperor was first published. Perhaps it’s better to read Emperor for what it is, a great story, told well, by someone who was an original.

Postscript: A year after completing this review I became aware of criticism made of the factual accuracy of Kapuściński’s writings. Follow this link to make up your own mind:



~ by ThatCricketBlogger on 1 November, 2007.

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