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Author of ‘The Emperor’ dies

‘I see him now as he walks, stops, walks again, lifts his head upward as though absorbed in prayer. O God, save me from those who, crawling on their knees, hide a knife they would like to sink in my back. But how can God help? All the people surrounding the Emperor are just like that–on their knees, and with knives. It’s never comfortable on the summits. An icy wind always blows, and everyone crouches, watchful lest his neighbor hurl him down the precipice.’

 This is an extract from The Emperor: the downfall of an autocrat, a book by a Polish journalist that chronicles of the decline of Haile Selassie’s regime in Ethiopia.

 The Associated Press reported that the author, Ryszard Kapuscinski, has died Tuesday in Warsaw. He was 74.

AP stated “The Emperor,” is probably his most popular book.

 John Ryle, Anthropology and Ecology Editor of the Times Literary Supplement, described the book as an account of the final years of the reign of Haile Selassie I, which appeared in Polish in 1978, in which Kapuściński invented a new subgenre of political reportage.  

     ‘In a series of linked, interpolated testimonies from former Ethiopian court officials, he created an arresting picture of the accelerating collapse of an authoritarian regime. This was a story that had special resonance for his audience in Poland , where dissent  against communist autocracy was growing. The Emperor was also the book that  established Kapuściński’s reputation in the West.When it appeared in English translation in 1983 it was an immediate critical success.’

 But there have been questions about the reliability of his reportage in the book. Richard Pankhurst, as quoted by John Ryle, who was personally acquainted with Haile Selassie I, was the first to note errors in The Emperor, and remains one of the very few scholars so to have done so in print.  In a letter to the Times Literary Supplement of April 17, 1987 , responding to a review of the stage version of The Emperor at the Royal Court in London that year, Professor Pankhurst provided a list of some of the implausibilities in the book. “It is incredible,” he wrote, “that a member of the court could have declared that ‘the Emperor never signed anything in his own hand’… [that] not even those closest to him knew what his signature looked like.  “The present writer,” Professor Pankhurst continued, “though not close to the Palace, has seen numerous examples of this signature.” 

His letter went on: “No less surprising is Kapuściński’s statement that the Emperor was so suspicious of one of his courtiers, Endelkachew Makonnen, that immediately prior to the abortive coup of 1960 he ‘added Endelkachew to the travelling party so that he could keep an eye on him during a visit to Brazil .’ Endelkachew, as readers in Britain may remember, was then the Ethiopian ambassador to the Court of St James’s.  He remained at this post throughout the coup and never had anything to do with the Emperor’s journey to or from Brazil .”   Professor Pankhurst concluded: “Kapuściński’s uncritical acceptance of his alleged informants’ statements can also be seen in the statement that Haile Selassie was responsible for the introduction of motorcars and the postage service to the country.  Both were introduced during the reign of the previous emperor, Menilek.” 

 The Associated Press wrote, ‘The book, published in 1978, was more a reflection on dictatorships in general and widely interpreted by Polish readers as a criticism of Poland’s communist regime. Kapuscinski once said the book was more about the “mechanism of dictatorial rule.”

But John Ryle had a different take. He argued that yet there is no indication in the book that it is meant to be read as an allegory – or as a traveller’s tale or parable (in the same genre, say, as Samuel Johnson’s Rasselas or the mediaeval European stories of Prester John, the legendary Abyssinian king).  Like Kapuściński’s other books, The Emperor is presented unambiguously as factual reportage – and it asserts its claim on the reader’s attention as such.  The dearth of other sources on the subject – no member of the Imperial court of Ethiopia survived to write a memoir of Haile Selassie – means that the book would have considerable documentary importance if the information in it could only be trusted. 

The late American historian, Harold Marcus related this to ‘ignorance about the book’s subject’ and he wrote that ‘so much so that the critics, to a person, found that the book was not about Ethiopia, or even the emperor, but was about Poland and its then dictator Edward Gierek.   ‘They fell for the notion that, originally invented by the book’s bitter Polish readers, that the Emperor was an allegory. They comment, therefore that Haile Sellasie’s story merely “illustrates exactly how the mighty rule, and why, as a result, they fall.’ 

But even his critics don’t deny the excellence in his writings. Marcus noted down that ‘Yet Kapuscinskis campaign of innuendo and half-truth is written with so much style, even allure, that some readers may be gulled into belief.’ 

Categories: News
  1. Martha Bruckner
    January 29, 2007 at 12:46 pm

    I have always admired Kapuscinski was not a saint journalist untainted by cynicism or opportunism.But journalism was a trade that he did awfullly good.He was never satisfied with mere description, but rather looks for explanation; that is balanced and objective but also passionate and unafraid to take sides; that demands the kind of research, reading, conversation—and publishing length—that are increasingly hard to come by in the modern world.The Empeor was the result of that experience.
    His own career offers hope that the great journalistic tradition he embodies will survive and flourish in the next generation of reporters.

  2. Martha Bruckner
    January 29, 2007 at 12:51 pm

    I have always admired Kapuscinski.He was not a saint journalist untainted by cynicism or opportunism

  3. curious
    January 29, 2007 at 1:35 pm

    Arefe! You who follows addis cult happenings….i’m looking for an event (theater play, concert, cinema…)/excuse to ask this girl out.
    Any help is appreciated…( from anyone reading this post…i’m 1/4 desperate)

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