History as fable; power as theatre,
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This review is from: The Emperor: Downfall of an Autocrat (Penguin Classics) (Paperback)
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.