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Customer reviews

4.7 out of 5 stars
43
The Emperor: Downfall of an Autocrat (Penguin Modern Classics)
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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!!
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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.
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on 5 October 2013
An interesting subject marred by inaccuracies in the text. The kindle edition has more errors in the text than those free books compiled by volunteers. Buy the paper version as the kindle version is a rip-off!
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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 !
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on 8 February 2016
i picked this up by way of some 'other side of the coin' reading to balance the great amount of material i'm reading on the rise and nature of the rastafarian movement. and it sure ain't an easy read! but a compelling one, nonetheless, and certainly an eye opener for me. the collected accounts of dignitaries (the ones that weren't jailed) and individuals close to the events, tell of extreme behaviours in an atmosphere of utter corruption and extravagance, whilst countrymen are dying of starvation (whilst remaining devoted to the emperor). death, neglect, greed and attention seeking were all part of the daily running of the empire.
it looks like this was no easy study, as tracking down and interviewing the relevant people appears to have been a covert and risky operation, and must have been made amid much unrest and confusion. the interviewees all hold their former positions in great esteem, and nary a negative word is spoken against haile selassie, everything that went awry was the fault of someone else. absolute loyalty, or just fear? it's a complete other world.
suffice to say, this book is brilliantly put together (almost reads like fiction in passages - a barely believable fiction!), and serves as a reminder that this all took place not that long ago.
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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.
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on 20 June 2017
The Scramble for Africa and the colonisations and stripping of valuable assets and resources that followed, is clearly a damning reflection on the many nations responsible and still continues today. Although wealthy, white men have spread the most misery, the Arabs and more recently China have certainly made a damaging and lasting impact too. Ethiopia being one of the oldest countries in the world, with its unique and distinctive language and culture, often prides itself on being one of the few spots in the Dark Continent not to have been properly colonised by white Europeans, having successfully defended itself against Italy in 1896. Though Italy did go on to occupy the country from 1936-41.

On the strength of this book, it would appear that Haile Selassie is not the best advert for Africans self-ruling. Like most men in his position, he was a totally ridiculous man, an egotistical, almost caricature figure who took himself incredibly serious and yet he maintained an image that saw many foreign nations fawning over him at the time, largely due to his country’s fight against Benito’s fascist Italy (though he did run away and hide in the cocooned luxury of Bath, England, when it was going on). He plundered millions from the country and his excess and ignorance resulted in the deaths of over a million of his own people.

Selassie had almost no schooling, apart from a period when a French Jesuit taught him briefly in his childhood. Apparently he was known for having an excellent memory, though he was also known to be against reading and was very much against educating his population for the fear that they would become aware of how disenfranchised and poor they really were and thus threaten his position on the throne.

There are many first hand recollections here that add up to quite a damning body of evidence, like the emperor’s small Japanese dog who would freely pee on the shoes of dignitaries, no one was allowed to flinch when they felt their feet getting wet, and someone was employed to go around cleaning off the urine from their shoes with a satin cloth. This was someone’s job for ten years.

In the summer of 1973, the journalist, Jonathan Dimbleby, visited the country, he had been there before and spoken of Selassie and his country in affectionate terms and so his presence raised no concerns. After Dimbleby visted the north and encountered the appalling extent of the famine and death there, in jarring comparison to the rampant luxury the emperor was living in, he made a documentary that aired in the UK and this helped to set into place a series of events that would lead to the Emperor’s eventual downfall.

Death from starvation had been going on in the empire for centuries so this news was commonplace and every day to the elite in the capital. When western aid agencies started flooding into the country to offer help and aid, the arrogance and entitlement of the elite was so bad that the Finance Minister turned round and demanded payment from them, ordering the benefactors to pay high customs fees.

This is a revealing and important book, it not only challenges the myth of one monstrous and ignorant man, but it bulldozes it, and puts into perspective what was really going on in Ethiopia during the reign of Selassie, exposing an entirely different story to the one believed by so many of his supporters.
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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....
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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.
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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.
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