Why I can’t trust Kapuscinski anymore?
The six-pages article of the late Ethiopianist Harold G.Marcus’s ‘Prejudice and Ignorance in Reviewing Books About Africa:The Strange Case of Ryszard Kapucinski’s The Emperor (1983), almost turned me in to anti-Kapuscinski.I often declared admiration for the Emperor and its author and even I wrote a description of the book in a local paper that was also reprinted in my former blog.
Here is a selection of Harold Marcus’s article, in which he starts by saying had he been asked to review the book,
I would first stated that Kapuscinski had written a flawed book because he had uncrticallly believed his informants, several of whom told tall tales about the short monarch.A few examples will suffice to clarify this point.One, Mr. Richard as he is called by several encounters, reported that the emperor had a little dog that was permitted to urinate on the shoes of courtiers and there was a servant whose sole duty was to wipe the offending shoes dry.True, the emperor enjoyed small dogs , but he never permitted any animal to humilate his courtiers.Second, Kapuscinski recounts that the emperor’s sole teacher was a French Jesuit, who never was able to inculate reading into his young charge.In fact, the young Haile Sellassie had several teachers, among them the Capucins but never a Jesuit.His Ethiopian Capucin, Father Samuel, introduced his students to the classic of Ethiopian and Western philosophical literature and instillled in him a profound respect for reading and learning.Thirs, Haile sellassie was , by all reports , a sedlous reader in Amharic, French and,l ater, in English.He not only pursued books but also reports, newspapers, and magazines.furthermore he wrote instructions and orders, giving the lie to Kapuscinski’s absurd statement (8):” Though he ruled for half a century, not even those closes to him knew what his signatures looked like.”
Fou, another informant told our Polish journalist that Haile Sellassie introduced automobiles into Ethiopia, an innovation that actually occured during the reign of Minilek (1889 _1913).Five, he repeates racist arrogance from Evelyn Waugh, They Were Still Dancing, which maligns Ethiopians work habits and discipline.Six, those of us who take Amharic and its usage serously are insulted by the artistic license taken by Kapuscinski when he ostensibly replicates conversations with informants. He has them referring to the emeror variously as “His Virtous Majesty” (28); “His Benevolent Majesty” (29);”His Sublime Majesty”(32); “His Most Unrivalled Majesty “(34) ” His indefatigable Majesty” (32); “His Magnanimous Highness” (39); ” His Most Extraordinary Majesty “(40); “His Kindly Majesty” (72); “His Most Ineffable highness”(117); “His most Puissant Majesty”(128); “His most exceptional Majesty “(143).A simple “Janhoy” or ” Majesty” would have sufficed, but Kapuscinski is attempting to ridicule , not to dignify ,the Ethiopian emperor, a technique observable in the other indictments he makes.
The Emperor, therefore ,is flawed but often insightful; it should be read with care and Kapuscinski’s facts ought to be carefully cheched against the historical record.I probably never would have used the word “alllegory”, to describe it , not out of ignorance ,but because I would have thought it a bad joke.
Source: History in Africa, Vol.17 (1990) pp 373-378
Harold Marcus is an American scholar who has published extensively on aspects of Ethiopia.Two of his most known boks are Haile Selllassie :The Formative Years, 1892-1936 (1987) and The Life and Times of Menelik , Ethiopia 1844-1913