A hero for some and villain for others, Haile Selassie cuts a controversial figure. Emperor of Ethiopia from 1930 to 1974, Selassie stood up to white imperialism, introduced a wide range of reforms and courted Western powers who showered him with foreign aid. He’s considered God by some in the Rastafarian movement. He also ignored millions of starving Ethiopians while spending lavishly on himself and his courtiers, imprisoned or executed his own people on a whim and built up a considerable fortune in Swiss bank accounts. The Emperor by Ryszard Kapuscinski, is a collection of interviews with some of his surviving courtiers, conducted clandestinely after Selassie’s fall. It’s an absorbing study in what power does to people and of a court which makes the courtiers at Buckingham Palace seem like pussycats.
Kapuscinski, a Polish foreign correspondent, covered the ousting of Selassie in 1974 and became interested in the dynamics of totalitarian power. It was the second in a planned trilogy which included the fall of the Shah of Iran and an unfinished portrait of Idi Amin. Kapuscinski, an accomplished writer, captures the arrogance and absurdity of court life and, above all, the all-absorbing fear of displeasing the King of Kings and risking prison, mutilation or execution. A detached tone runs through the interviews. Whether this was for real or created by Kapuscinski is hard to know, but a universality is the effect and perhaps that was exactly the intention. The description of how power can translate into physical changes, for example, is one that we have all observed.
An ordinary head, which had moved in a nimble and unrestrained way, ready to turn, bow, and twist, became strangely limited as soon as it was anointed with the assignment. Now it could move in only two directions: down to the ground, in the presence of His Highness, and upward, in the presence of everyone else.
Considered Kapuscinski’s masterpiece, The Emperor, was translated into 30 languages, went on to become a best-seller and is just as relevant today as it was in 1978.
The Emperor by Ryszard Kapuscinski is published by Penguin Classics, 192 pages.