Book review: The Emperor, by Ryszard Kapuściński

At the funeral of U.S. President John F. Kennedy in 1963, Emperor Haile Selassie (second from right with sword, sash, and heavy gold braid)  marches with other foreign heads of state. (Newspaper clipping of Associated Press photo)
At the funeral of U.S. President John F. Kennedy in 1963, Emperor Haile Selassie (second from right with sword, sash, and heavy gold braid) marches with other foreign heads of state. (Newspaper clipping of Associated Press photo)

Book coverTHE EMPEROR : downfall of an autocrat, by Ryszard Kapuściński. Translated from Polish by William R. Brand and Katarzyna Mroczkowska-Brand. New York: Vintage, 1983. 164 pp. ISBN–10 0151287716

Forty years ago today, the deposed absolute ruler of Ethiopia died in prison after more than 40 years on the throne. Haile Selassie, the Lion of Judah, King of Kings, had been deposed by the army in 1974. Ryszard Kapuściński, a Polish journalist, was there, and he wrote about it. It became a book titled Cesarz (The Emperor).

The story is presented as an oral history, in the words of Ethiopians who agreed to speak to the foreign journalist but were anxious not to be identified:

They caution me again, needlessly: no addresses, no names, don’t say that he’s tall, that he’s short, that he’s skinny, that his forehead this or his hands that. Or that his eyes, or that his legs, or that his knees . . . There’s nobody left to get down on your knees for.

This English translation was published in 1983, after Solidarity had become a household word and Poland was actually holding the attention of the U.S. news media. This book even made it into the pages of Time and Newsweek, where reviewers insisted that the author wasn’t just writing about Haile Selassie; he was really taking a subtle swipe at Communism.

Those remarks seemed absurd to me at the time, typical Cold War point scoring. Since then, I’ve become convinced that Kapuściński probably did have two regimes in mind at once, Ethiopia’s and Poland’s. The book is not journalism. It’s more of a composite portrait of absolute rule.

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