The Emperor by Ryszard Kapuscinski

By the time Ryszard Kapuściński returned to Ethiopia, the revolution had already swept Emperor Haile Selassie from power. He engaged in something like journalistic archaeology, digging up the people of the Palace from where they had gone to ground to avoid execution in the violence that followed the revolution. The Emperor reads as if it had been told to him in whispers, as perhaps it had, at night, in an undisclosed location.

Once they had been the people of the Palace or had enjoyed the right of admission there. Not many of them remained. Some had perished, shot by the firing squad. Some had escaped the country; others had been locked in the dungeons beneath the Palace, cast down from the chambers to the cellars. Some were in hiding in the mountains or living disguised as monks in cloisters. Everyone was trying to survive in his own way. …
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. (pp. 4–5)

The book proceeds with a series of testimonies, identified by the speaker’s initials, describing life in the court of His Highness, His Supreme Majesty, the Emperor Haile Selassie. How that court functioned, and how it finally succumbed to what are commonly called the forces of modernity. Periodically, Kapuściński puts in his own observations or recollections, separated from the other accounts by italics and serving as a bridge between the world of the Palace and that of an outside observer.

Kapuściński first came to Ethiopia in 1963 for a meeting of African heads of state. He was then a reporter for PAP, the official news agency of Poland under a Communist but de-Stalinizing government.

Addis Ababa was then a large village of a few hundred thousand inhabitants, situated on hills, amid eucalyptus groves. Goats and cows grazed on the lawn along the main street, Churchill Road, and cars had to stop when nomads drove their herds of frightened camels across the street. It was raining, and in the side streets vehicles spun their wheels in the gluey brown mud, digging themselves in deeper until there were columns of nearly submerged, immobilized automobiles.
The Emperor realized that the capital of Africa must look more presentable, so he ordered the construction of several modern buildings and the cleaning up of the more important streets. …
Huge bulldozers rolled along the edges of the thoroughfares, destroying the first row of mud huts that had been abandoned the day before, when the police chased their occupants out of town. Next, brigades of masons built high walls to screen the remaining hovels from view. Other groups painted national designs on the wall. The city smelled of fresh concrete, paint, cooling asphalt, and the palm leaves with which the entry gates had been decorated. (pp. 17–18)

Kapuściński’s sources describe the Emperor’s daily routines, the designated Hour of Assignments or Hour of the Cashbox, in which personal rule was extended over a population of some thirty million, but most directly over the swirling, competing mass of courtiers and would-be courtiers. These were divided roughly into three groups: the hereditary aristocracy of landowners, the bureaucrats “most enlightened and most progressive since some of them had a higher education,” and the “personal people,” those raised up by the Emperor himself, and even more dependent than most for his favor.

As the Palace people described it, nothing moved within Haile Selassie’s system except that the Emperor wished it so. Initiative, let alone independence, was a sign of disloyalty, a betrayal of the only virtue that the Emperor valued.

Here let me mention that His Majesty did not oppose reform. He always sympathized with progress and improvement. [Elsewhere Kapuściński notes that a young Haile Selassie had upset traditionalists by bringing in the first motor cars and airplanes.] But he could not stand it when someone undertook reform on his own, first because that created a threat of anarchy and free choice, and second because it might create the impression of there being other charitable ones in the Empire besides His Magnanimous Highness. (pp. 32–33)

“I’ll come right out and say it: the King of Kings preferred bad ministers.” (p. 33) In such a system, there could only be one sun around which everyone revolved. Selassie also encouraged corruption. The Emperor preferred people who had a lot to lose, and if they were corrupt, that provided yet another lever if they somehow proved to be disloyal.

Disloyalty could take many forms. Plotting against the Emperor — as Haile Selassie had himself plotted to gain the throne many years ago — was only the most obvious. Taking initiative without the Emperor’s approval was also disloyal. Telling the truth, particularly to foreigners, could be terribly disloyal. A British filmmaker had won favor in the past with his positive portrayals of Ethiopia. Then he happened to be in the country when there was famine in the northern provinces, and his next movie juxtaposed footage of terrible suffering with shots of luxury and extravagance in and around the Palace.

“Here you can see, my friend, the irresponsibility of the foreign press, which like Mr. Dimbleby praised our monarch for years and then suddenly, without any rhyme or reason, condemned him. Why? Why such treason and immorality?” (p. 109) Kapuściński’s informant is puzzled.

First of all, death from hunger had existed in our Empire for hundreds of years, an everyday, natural thing, and it never occurred to anyone to make any noise about it. Drought would come and the earth would dry up, the cattle would drop dead, the peasants would starve. Ordinary, in accordance with the laws of nature and the eternal order of things. Since this was eternal and normal, none of the dignitaries would dare to bother His Most Exalted Highness with the news that in such and such a province a given person had died of hunger. Of course, His Benevolent Highness visited the provinces himself, but it was not his custom to stop in poor regions where there was hunger, and anyway how much can one see during official visits? (p. 111)

This description shows the attitude of the monarchy toward the people, but cracks in the system had appeared and were widening. There had been a coup attempt in 1960 while the Emperor was on a state visit to Brazil. The plotters seized members of the Emperor’s family and many high nobles, but not all of them, nor were the armed services all on their side. As the Emperor made his way back from South America, the revolution collapsed. Haile Selassie returned to power, but not before rebels killed 18 members of his family.

Through the 1960s, tension increased as part of the population gained in education and became less content with the notion of absolute monarchy, or at least more able to make their grievances known. The Emperor also had to rely more and more on security services, adding an Hour of the Army and Police to his daily routine. At the same time, he was making efforts to bring Ethiopia into the modern age, at least as far as it would go without a change to the political system. Thus there was also an Hour of Development, although it is far from clear that many of the participants knew much of what development was about. They would catch up to Europe, even surpass it! “The catching up, the surpassing” becomes a refrain in the second half of the book, but it is clear that no such thing will take place.

The end comes for Haile Selassie in a creeping coup. Elements of the army round up certain functionaries, certain ministers, claiming that these had been disloyal to the Emperor and that they were working with His Majesty’s blessing. The Emperor was by then more than 80 years old, and he did not move against the army faction. Kapuściński describes how he would give his blessing to all of the contending elements, wishing them success in their efforts. The Jailers wanted to crack down; the Talkers wanted to bring people together to negotiate; the army kept arresting people. Slowly but surely, the army isolated the Palace and the Emperor, finally leaving him as a prisoner within his own Palace, surrounded by soldiers. He died a little more than a year later.

In its German translation, The Emperor carries the subtitle, “A Parable About Power.” (The Polish original title is Cesarz, or Caesar.) When Kapuściński first traveled to Ethiopia, his native Poland was emerging from a system in which there had also been but one sun, anointed by History and the Party rather than by God, but not, in many ways, so very different from Haile Selassie. Stalin had died a natural death while still in power, but many of the aspects of the Emperor’s rule would have been familiar to anyone who lived through Stalinism. The denunciations, the supremacy of loyalty, the constant fear; all of these would have been familiar to Kapuściński.

When he wrote the book, Poland was enjoying a period of relative liberalization, but there were still strict limits on what could be said, and what could be questioned. At one level, it’s possible that Cesarz escaped the censor’s ire because it was about the downfall of a feudal system, and thus fit into the Communist dialectic of history. At another, though, the censor failed to see that Kapuściński’s observations could be more generally applied to systems of power that center on one person and do not allow for the freedom of individuals. Unless the censor agreed with Kapuściński, as was sometimes known to happen; dictatorships, whether of His Majesty or of the Politburo, are never as seamless as they like to pretend.

The Hours of Assignments, the whispers, the denunciations; the catching up, the surpassing. All of these come back to me as I think about The Emperor, a portrait of power exercised in a self-contained world, upon which the rest of reality was eventually bound to intrude.

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