14 of 14 people found the following review helpful
on 10 January 2007
I have just finished reading this book - and I loved it.
I was given it as a Christmas gift; having added it to my Amazon wish list !
I first came across Ryszard Kapuscinski after reading "The Shadow of the Sun: My African Life", which I also loved. I like Kapuscinski's reportage style, but I am particularly gripped by his insight.
As for the actual book; I think that the mechanism that Kapuscinski uses for telling the story - vignettes from different individuals - is a great way of telling a story. The reader receives a variety of perspectives, which on their own may not tell the whole story, but collectively form a mossaic which gives far more detail than simple reportage could ever do.
By the end of the book, I felt that I had a pretty good impression of life in the court of Haile Selassie, but I also felt that I had a much clearer understanding of life in the court of any autocratic absolute monarch - such as King Charles I of England or the Kings Louis' of France.
Highly recommended !
16 of 16 people found the following review helpful
on 28 October 2006
Kapuscinsky at his finest! As the world falls apart around Haille Selassie, Kapuscinsky documents his inexorable downfall. But, as always this is not just a documentary. This is colourful, flavoursome, deliciously ironic, bitterly sweet and, whilst inciting despair, drawing symapthy and anger at the same time. If there is one Kapuscinsky to read - make it this one.
8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on 27 July 2006
This is one of a number of amazing works of journalism by Ryszard Kapuscinski, who covered the Third World for the Polish Press Agency until 1981.
In typical Kapuscinski style, in 1974 he went to Ethiopia in the middle of a successful coup attempt to interview servants and associates of the soon-to-be-deposed Emperor Haile Selassie to discover how he ruled and why he was overthrown. The result is a wonderfully composed text that is practically dripping with irony, regret, and even humor.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on 25 July 2007
Fantastic!!This was Kapuscinski's first book to be translated into English,and the second of his I read(the first was "Another Day Of Life").
It is a sequence of reminiscence-s of Haile Selasse's court,rendered by a bunch of flunkies,hangers-on and true believers,and they are amazing.When you read one of them arguing that periodic famine is good for Ethiopians,or another saying that education is bad because it's easy to go from the habit of reading to the habit of thinking,you are shaking your head in disbelief.
The second major theme in the book is the Red Terror(the fetasha)launched by the military committee(the Dergue)taking place as Kapuscinski is in Addis Ababa researching this book.His descriptions of crazed soldiers manning jeeps and roadblocks,searching everything and not being averse to opening fire on any real or imagined enemies,is a fantastic description of life under terror.
As you finish this,remember that Kapuscinski was a citizen of a Communist dicatorship in Poland.Is this book really about Ethiopia,or is it Kapuscinski writing about terror and dictatorship in general,a thinly disguised critique of Gierek's Poland?Some Poles I've spoken to about say the former,some the latter.Judge for yourself.
A fine piece of reportage,and well up to Kapuscinski's finest standards.Beware though-if this is the first of his books that you've read,you'll end up reading all of them.Start saving now!!
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
Ryszard Kapuscinski has lead a remarkable life, much of it related in his autobiographical work, "Ebene." In part by inclination, in part by necessity, he saw so much more of Africa, in particular, than literally scores of Western journalists on 5-star hotel expense accounts. Coming from a country in what was once called the "Eastern bloc," Poland, his much more basic expense account did not provide a comfortable, air-conditioned bed each night, and the gossip at the bar. And he, as well as we are richer for that. Kapuscinski also managed to locate himself in the right place at the right time -- the "Holy Grail" of good journalists --and was able to report on the fall of the Shah in Iran, as well as the collapse of Portuguese rule in Angola in 1974. But the story of the reign and fall of the "King of Kings," Haile Selassie, in Ethiopia, also in 1974, is my favorite book.
A man with as many august titles as Haile Selassie might object to a reference as lowly as a mere The Prince (Penguin Classics) but I am referring Niccolo Machiavelli's classic work on rulers and their judicious, cynical use of power. For that is the essence of Kapuscinski's work, and I think it is a serious mistake, which some other reviewers made, to assume this is only about "totalitarian regimes."
Kapuscinski says that via a vital contact who used to work in the regime of Haile Selassie he was able to interview a number of his former functionaries who had survived the purge (and executions) after the revolution. Via these interviews, he reconstructs a telling, comic, and tragic portrait of palace life. The book's format is these interviews, along with the author's own words in italicized sections. Other reviews, notably Smith-Jones criticized this technique, and certainly literally, he is correct. Clearly Kapuscinski has placed these interviews in a standard style and format, including the use of pompous titles for Selassie. No doubt too there was some embroidery, but the essential points on the human condition ring true. In particular I was struck by the manner in which Selassie gathered "intelligence" on his country -- by walking in the garden each morning, and having his three intelligence heads hiding behind bushes, then running up behind the Emperor, whispering all the events of the last 24 hours. Each of the three hated the other two, and feared they might reveal something that he had not. Selassie is silent in this whole process. When I read this book for the first time I was working for a true megalomaniac who gathered his "intelligence" in a similar fashion - through mutual antagonistic sources.
Kapuscinski's short book is rich with similar anecdotes on the maintenance, and finally the delusions of palace life. A small sampling include the fact that Selassie himself was once "in the crowd," hoping the current Emperor would recognize him; folk singer Miriam Makeba was brought to Ethiopia to sing at an African Congress for the sum of $25,000; the sad fate of the first attempted coup against him by the Neway brothers in 1960; the learning of a second language, that of evasion, the art of saying nothing, which all citizens accomplished (p94)-- as an epigraph for the later Kapuscinski quotes Stendhal "Courtiers of all ages feel one great need; to speak in such a way that they do not say anything"; and the manner in which the revolution was finally accomplished -- always in the "name" of the Emperor.
As for parallels with America's own condition, consider that when the peasants were starving up north, the Palace felt the most important aspect of the relief effort was that the Emperor show "his concern;" as opposed to taking any effective actions. Sound like New Orleans? Ethiopia's treasure was used time and time again to support the "dignitaries." Sound like a Wall Street bailout?
On a personal note, I spent 5 days in Ethiopia in 1984, still have a baseball cap I was given celebrating the "10th Anniversary of the Ethiopian revolution." Sadly though, Mengistu proved to be just as much a rapacious thug. At the time the country was firmly in the communist orbit--large billboards proclaiming allegiance to Marx, Lenin et al. We were passing a building with a very ordering line of a couple hundred people waiting. A guard saw our white faces, unusual at the time in the country, came to get us, placed us at the head of the line, and that was how we saw the extensive collection of exhibits in the "Haile Selassie crimes museum."
Given an assumed liberty or two in style, this is the best book we will ever have on the rule and delusions of one of the world's unique leaders.
(Note: Review first published at Amazon, USA, on December 12, 2008)
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on 19 October 2000
This is a fascinating review of Haile Selassie's reign, told in their own words by people who were in his court. The stories include some really amazing insights into the regime, e.g. the guy who was the official pillow bearer and was responsible for carrying 54 different-thickness pillows (for different height chairs) around the world to place under Selassie's feet so his legs wouldn't dangle. Kapuscinski, by letting the narrators' stories stand as told to him, simultaneously creates a sense of documentary objectivity and of subjectivity in that the stories are personal accounts, and you end up not knowing what to believe. I have some Ethiopian friends who say that the book is full of lies, but raising that very question seems to be the author's point. I highly recommend it to anyone interested in history or, more generally, in the excesses of human existence.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 13 February 2012
In essence I agree both with the 5 and 2 star reviewers: this is an elegant, beautiful, wistful, ironic, thoughtful and compassionate book, but is evidently very, very close to being a fiction. The much noted polyphony of voices is no such thing; it is evidently a single voice and the parataxis carefully contrived. No doubt the author did travel to Ethiopia and interview many persons closely involved, yet this manifestly a book written by a lone, rather late-Romantic, author in dialogue with numerous histories and biographies of earlier European monarchies and its discontents, so it is scarece suprising to find vivid echoes of the late Caesars, Charles 1st and Louis 16th, memories of Machiavelli and Benjamin Constant. The man definately wants to be de Touquville in some fashion - and why not? O yes, its the 1970s and the Communist Party of Poland has to be considered in every printed utterance.... The inter-text is as much the subject as Selassie 1st and his actual fate. Nonetheless if one is interested in, or even suseptible to beguilement by, the complex attitudes of a well educated Cold War era Polish forgein correspondent in the face of an African anti-Absolutist coup cum revolution then read on, and back again against its apparent grain... look for the store-houses of his mind, there is much cached there. What appeals to me most, and explains my title, is that such a deliberate attempt at demytholigising this most mythic of modern men becomes by reflection a myth in its own right, and as such hugely interesting, to mythographers and other degusters of Legend....
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 18 February 2012
A fantastic insight into the world of Ethiopa and Haile Selassie, told by secret interviews with those that lived in and dwelt among his surreal court. It is beautifully witten, verging on the poetic, a mystical sense of another country and another world, one we can almost immerse oursleves in simply due to the great story telling that underpins this book.
To call this world surreal is to be too simple. It is other worldly, the thoughts and actions all recognisable human but somehow on another plain to the world we exist in. Although in truth the human aspects are immediately recognisable to anyone and wonderfully bought out in sympathetic and thoughtful interviews. No judgements are made, you are left to do that yourself and this book gives you the real opportunity to do that with it's human and yet almost forensic approach to explaining and understanding the reign of Selassie.
To think there are those who regard him as a God still is shocking, put simply he was a staggeringly effective Dictator, the centre of the life of a country for decades, effective at diving and ruling with ruthless and yet at times almost benign efficiency. How is that combination possible? Well read the book and find out. Ultimately Selassie like almost every other dictators was corrupt and vile, but this book allows you to see him and his reign with in a startingly fresh and fascinating way.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 17 February 2011
After the revolution that overthrew the absolute monarch Haile Selassie in Ethopia a shrewd Polish journalist went to Addis Ababba. Kapuscinski went to great and dangerous lengths to interview servants and lowly courtiers who had worked in the court of the Emperor. Each gives an account and in total they add up to a remarkable insight into the workings of an almost mediaeval court. The language is unusual, respectful and a little stilted but each story reveals the attitudes and actions that underpinned the regime. The book proceeds through one failed coup and onto the ultimate decline and fall of the Empire. As a documentary account of an autocratic court at work it is living history and unlike any other book I have read. Highly recommended.
on 14 September 2012
There is much in the record of Ryszard Kapuscinski liable to raise an eyebrow. Questions regarding his journalistic integrity abound. Whether or not they are justified, it's undeniable that 'The Emperor' is a classic, a 'docu-fable' fascinating from both a literary and historical perspective.
As foreign correspondent, Kapuscinski was one of the few Poles in the Soviet era who was permitted to travel abroad. He became a self-appointed storyteller, coming back from far flung countries with exotic tales whose poetic surrealism could have seen them lifted from a fairytale. This was how he realised the story of the final years of Emperor Haile Selassie I and the Abyssinian Empire. Although Kapuscinski had travelled to Ethiopia before, he did so prior to the 1974 army coup which saw the ancient imperial dynasty toppled - and it was in the years following, against this backdrop of gloom and fear that he returned to interview former dignitaries of Selassie.
Their accounts - given on the condition of anonymity - form Kapuscinski's patchwork portrait of the taciturn, impenetrable
emperor. Against the painstakingly recreated intricacies of life in the imperial court, with all its archaic procedures and theatrical pretence, Selassie emerges as a passive product of a bygone era, hopelessly detached from the wretched poverty widespread throughout the empire. But the story of the fantastical world over which Selassie presided is a macguffin for a deeper reflection on the nature of absolute power. As his grip on the empire weakened, it never occurred to Selassie to relinquish power. Even as the military junta ground his court down to a nub - ultimately leaving Selassie alone in his sprawling palace with just one servant - Selassie never ceased to believe that he would ever stop being emperor.
The accuracy of the account remains controversial. Even after the collapse of the military junta, Kapuscinski never named his sources. Similarly, certain developments are exaggerated for dramatic effect. And if art is to be judged by its verisimilitude, then 'The Emperor' may not tick all the boxes. But there is an elegant simplicity to Kapuscinski's prose which is very powerful. The world he realises is one of appearance over reality, an existential nightmare brought to life with vivid imagery: begging hands groping at him out of the darkness of his dreams; obsequious faces jealously jostling for royal recognition; the emperor driven to exile in a green, two-door Volkswagen - one senses that Kapuscinski got the feel, if not the detail, just right.