Saturday 22 September 2012

The Emperor: Downfall of an Autocrat: Ryszard Kapuscinski


Ethiopia is fascinating as nowhere else in Africa is, certainly nowhere south of the Sahara, because under her ancient monarchy, overthrown in 1974, she was neither savage nor civilised but somewhere between the two, like Christian Europe in the Dark Ages. She has one of the longest histories in the world on a continent where most countries have no history at all before the arrival of people from other continents (although the Ethiopians themselves are Semites who originally invaded from Arabia). She become Christian before the Roman Empire did and was never a European colony except for five years under Mussolini. 

Haile Selassie's imperial court, as portrayed by Ryszard Kapuscinski in The Emperor: Downfall of an Autocratresembles something from medieval Europe not the 1960s and 70s. Perhaps Athelstan's court was like this or that of William Rufus.

Even before I remembered the stories of Kapuscinski's inventing facts, it was obvious that the first person accounts in The Emperor by members of Haile Selassie's household, which make up the book, were at least greatly rewritten by Kapuscinski. All the palace servants and functionaries tell their stories in exactly the same reverent but ironic voice about the appalling behaviour of 'His Most Puissant Majesty and Distinguished Highness the Emperor'. I assumed this was a novel (a novel written as if from different eye witness accounts like one of Joseph Conrad's) more than journalism or oral history. As such it is fairly enjoyable, though it gets slow and finally failed to hold my interest.

"The emperor began his day by listening to informers' reports. The night breeds dangerous conspiracies, and Haile Selassie knew that what happens at night is more important than what happens during the day. During the day he kept an eye on everyone; at night that was impossible. For that reason, he attached great importance to the morning reports. And here I would like to make one thing clear: His venerable majesty was no reader. . . .  

The custom of relating things by word of mouth had this advantage: If need be, the emperor could say that a given dignitary had told him something quite different from what had really been said. . . . It was the same with writing, for our monarch not only never used his ability to read, but he also never wrote anything and never signed anything in his own hand. Though he ruled for half a century, not even those closest to him knew what his signature looked like." 

This tells us a lot about the court of Haile Selassie but is what it tells us true?  It implies, for example, that he was illiterate, whereas he was in fact a well-read man both in Amharic and French. 

I enjoyed the rebel soldiers in 1974 taking prisoner the general who had purloined the money allotted to buy their food and forcing him to eat their mealy and rotten rations. We are told in  parenthesis that the general was taken to hospital after this. Very droll, but true or false? It is impossible for the reader to know.

John Ryle, in a wonderfully comprehensive demolition of Kapuscinski in the TLS back in 2001, points out that the Emperor:

possessed a large library where he spent long periods of time, and provided copious written comments on manuscripts submitted to him. It seems unlikely that his own palace servants could have been unaware of this.

John Ryle also asserted that the courtly and archaic language in which all the characters speak bears no resemblance to how they could conceivably have spoken in real life.  Kapuscinski invented it for literary and political effect. He probably amalgamated or invented the people he claims to be recording. No doubt the standards of journalistic integrity in Communist Poland were a lot laxer than in the UK, especially for someone who grew up as a fervent Stalinist.

To add to the layers of fictions, Kapuscinski, a convinced socialist, informer and occasional spy, was becoming disillusioned with Polish Communism by the time he wrote The Emperor. He was understood by many of his original Polish readers to be writing not just about the Ethiopian regime but by implication about the Polish Communist regimes of Gomulka and Gierek. After 1989, he said that this is something he intended. But on a more superficial level, he intended a diatribe against a conservative regime, written from a Marxist perspective. This would, for a Soviet bloc hack, have justified the inaccuracies. So the book is political propaganda written by a literary double agent, rather than journalism or history.

I skipped a lot. Irony can be wearing even if you are Henry Fielding or Saki. Only Edward Gibbon and Joseph Conrad can keep it entertaining indefinitely. 

I read this in tandem with Evelyn Waugh's account of Haile Selassie's coronation in 1930, Remote People, which made an interesting diptych. I suspect Evelyn Waugh also invented like crazy, but he was writing a travelogue not history. Waugh of course is the better writer. Both were better fiction writers than journalists. Waugh, the Catholic neophyte and arch-conservative, and Kapuscinski, the communist, are equally subjective and offer an equally unflattering picture of Ethiopia under Haile Selassie. Even a monarchist like I can only defend the regime with the arguments that it was a great spiritual force uniting the nation and what came afterwards was very much worse. 

The Emperor: Downfall of an Autocrat is now published in Penguin Modern Classics which is almost entirely a collection of fiction. The only other non fiction books that I recall from the series are Ten Days that Shook the World by John Reed and In Cold Blood by Truman Capote, both of which purport to be non-fiction but are very unreliable as factual accounts. It doesn't matter so long as they are read as inventions, but, though a good writer, as a journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski was appalling. He was even worse than Johann Hari.


  1. Reminds me to read Remote People. I read Waugh in Abyssinia and loved it. I don’t think Waugh’s portrait was entirely unflattering, but he does take the piss a lot and it is very funny as well as good journalism.

  2. I love both books very much and reviewed WIA here.