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4.7 out of 5 stars
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4.7 out of 5 stars
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on 11 February 2015
I'm not a great reviewer of books but I must say I really enjoyed this. It's written in a style, and from a perspective, that isn't usual in this genre of documentary journalism.
Through the interviews of former high positioned people (staff, landowners, military etc) we are drawn into a world of naive corruption whereby the players appear to do anything in order to stay in favour and not be relegated back to the poverty of the rest of the populace.
Although it's difficult to take the book word for word as to how these Ethiopians described their individual situations to a Polish journalist, you do get a great sense of the story of the fall of the Empire, as it was, then.
You neither feel that these people were malicious, nor do you feel they were so naive - it was just the world in which they lived and which altered as soon as enough of the youth could leave the country to get educated and see how the rest of the modern world worked. By going back home and realising how insular the country was, they naturally wanted change....
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on 22 November 2012
In the introduction to "Travels with Herodotus", Kapuscjinski describes the act of reading in post-war Communist Poland - having to probe texts to find the second meaning of the words used by authors in their attempts to avoid the censors. "The Emperor" can be read as a commentary on the events leading to the downfall of Haile Selassie, but it's also an insightful analysis of hierarchical human organisations in any culture. Kapuscinski may have been directing the book against the Polish Communist Party, but there is too much truth in this book - it's a manual for modern times. I'd suggest leaders of hierarchical organisations should read it at bedtime to show how institutions, driven by their own self-interest, become utterly involuted. For politicians, it's a must read; perhaps balanced with "The Life of Ghandi" and "Catch 22". As you read on, you realise every paragraph is a gem.
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on 2 June 2013
Kapuscinski seems to love writing about the downfall of autocrats (see "Shah of Shahs" about the overthrow of the Shah of Iran) and he does it extremely well. I found the.interviews he conducted with Haile Selassie's former officials fascinating and insightful. Although I couldn't help speculating on how many of these people would have ultimately survived the Mengistu regime which made the worst of the Emperor's regime seem positively benign. Kapuscinski is such a descriptive writer for example his account of Haile Selassie at the end as a bewildered frightened old man was really harrowing. I can only hope that the Rastas who'd come to be near their King made it out okay.
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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)
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on 6 January 2015
Kapuscinski waas in my peripheral vision for some time before I got round to reading him. I got several of his books on kindle and several more out of the library. A sensitive and intelligent writer well worth pursuing. Even if this is all history now I think it repays reading still because the writing is of such a quality and Kapuscinski has such a compassionate and inviting style that reading it is still enjoyable.
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on 18 August 2014
It is amazing that this revolution of 40 years ago is not that different to what is still happening today. Rudyard Kapuscinski is a master in the art of telling stories that still have the power to move you even though they are history. There are no contemporaries that can capture events of the current state of the world like he did.
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on 12 August 2014
This book shows life from inside the imperial palace looking back after the Emperor's removal. It is unusual in that we hear from those closest to the Emperor and displays a very different character to the hero of the west so often featured in accounts of Haile Selassie's life. Well worth reading.
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on 7 March 2013
I know Ethiopia very well and I found the details of H.S's last days in his palace very interesting.I am not sure how he died
but I have heard some rumours that he was suffocated by the Dergue soldiers.
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on 26 February 2016
Exceptional reportage. This is not just a fascinating insight into Ethiopia's history, but an account the lays bare the unreality of unfettered power. It will stay with you long after you read it.
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on 13 February 2015
An interesting approach to chronicling the collapse of Selassie's Ethiopian Empire,from the perspective of those who served him at Court.
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