Ryszard Kapuściński’s The Emperor

Who was Ryszard Kapuściński? The small biography appended to the end of The Emperor is admittedly terse: “Ryszard Kapuściński was born in 1932. During four decades reporting on Asia, Latin America, and Africa, he befriended Che Guevara, Salvador Allende, and Patrice Lumumba. He witnessed twenty-seven coups and revolutions and was sentenced to death four times.” Kapuściński was a Polish journalist, whose life spent abroad, in some of the world’s most dangerous countries and circumstances, was no doubt motivated, in some small part, by a desire to escape Soviet-controlled Poland. In late 1975, he arrived in Ethiopia, shortly after the former emperor, Haile Selassie, had been deposed by a military uprising after a reign of nearly 45 years. The Emperor was born first from a budding friendship with an unknown Ethiopian within Selassie’s regime, and later a series of conversations he had with former servants of Selassie’s, all of whom spoke with Kapuściński under the condition of anonymity. Their testimonials, polished to a fine ironic sheen by Kapuściński, blur the line between fact and fiction, horror and comedy, but they reveal something eternally true about absolute power: the pomp and bluster, naturally, but also the insecurity, the total reliance on the esteem of others.

Consider the full title of Haile Selassie, repeated every time he enters a new venue: King of Kings, Elect of God, Lion of Judah, His Most Puissant Majesty and Distinguished Highness the Emperor of Ethiopia. Next, look at a photo of him, in the full military regalia he was wont to wear even in the most casual of circumstances. In a monarchical system, absolute power is vested in one person, and the ruler is therefore obliged to look and act in a manner befitting his stature. Selassie, therefore, has palaces in every province of Ethiopia, meticulously maintained year round, even if he visits them seldom. He has servants to open doors for him, shine the shoes of his guests, and pick up after his dog. But Kapuściński also notes that such self-aggrandizement necessarily involves a corresponding act of self-abasement (his chapter on “The Throne” begins with a quote from Carl Jung: “Man will get used to anything, if only he reaches an appropriate degree of submission”), and Selassie’s subjects are quick to oblige. Listen, for example, to the account of the emperor’s pillow bearer, whose job is to place a different pillow beneath the feet of the emperor, depending on the height of his various thrones:

I was His Most Virtuous Highness’s pillow bearer for twenty-sex years. I accompanied His Majesty on travels all around the world, and to tell the truth – I say it with pride – His Majesty could not go anywhere without me, since his dignity required that he always take his place on a throne, and he could not sit on a throne without a pillow, and I was the pillow bearer. I had mastered the special protocol of this specialty, and even possessed an extremely useful, expert knowledge: the height of various thrones. This allowed me quickly to choose a pillow of just the right size, so that a shocking ill fit, allowing a gap to appear between the pillow and the Emperor’s shoes, would not occur. In my storeroom I had fifty-two pillows of various sizes, thicknesses, materials, and colors.

We are disturbed not only by the ego of an emperor, manifested in such petty requirements, but in the lowliness of his servants, that they would take pride in fulfilling such a function. Kapuściński makes us well aware, at all times, of the necessary absurdity of absolute power, and these insights confer on The Emperor a comic aspect, but we never stray too far from the horror of authoritarian rule, either. In the midst of a period of feasting, in which foreign journalists are being lavishly feasted in the palace, one of them complains about some trifle to a palace functionary, vowing to take his complaint to the emperor. The functionary instantly goes pale, and whispers something barely intelligible to the journalists: were they to make such a complaint, the emperor would have his head cut off.

The Emperor’s downfall comes in the middle of the 1970s, when the wider world finally gets wind of a terrible famine that had been occurring for some time in the Ethiopian countryside. At first, Haile Selassie is reluctant to accept international aid, on the grounds that doing so would be an admission of weakness. He is eventually persuaded to allow aid groups into the country, but they are further perturbed by two discoveries: the first is that there is no shortage of food in Ethiopia – no crop failure, no natural disaster, that might normally precipitate a famine – but simply an extortionist market, by which wealthy landowners – all favourites of the Emperor – grossly overcharge for wheat and grain; the second is that the local bureaucrats are charging a tariff on the aid itself. “Do you want to help in such a way that our Empire gains nothing by it?” asks the Finance Minister, oblivious to the absurdity of his question. When the military finally bands together to overthrow Selassie, it is on the grounds of his gross incompetence and misrule that they justify their coup. And yet, even as they are escorting them out of the palace, he maintains the fiction that they are under his command, thanking the soldiers for their service and loyalty. “If the revolution is for the good of the people, then I am for the revolution.”

As a portrait of authoritarian power, The Emperor is by turns comic and horrifying, and always rich with an underlying irony. But it also serves as an effective allegory: Selassie was an obvious stand-in, at least to Kapuściński’s Polish readers, for Edward Gierek, First Secretary of the Soviet Union-controlled Polish United Workers’ Party, whose own downfall came just two years after The Emperor appeared in print. This fact, I’d argue, justifies a flattering comparison. Who was Ryszard Kapuściński? The Polish George Orwell.