The Emperor: Downfall of an Autocrat

Ryszard Kapuscinski

translated from the Polish
Penguin 2006 [1978]
A book review by Danny Yee © 2007
Kapuscinski visited Ethiopia in 1974, after the revolution which toppled Haile Selassie, and interviewed surviving members of the court, including ministers, courtiers, clerks and servants. In The Emperor (Polish Cesarz) he worked their stories together, with some direct narration of his own, to produce a multi-perspective portrait of the downfall of Haile Selassie and his court.

The vignettes in part one describe a morning in the life of the emperor: waking, briefings from the heads of three different secret police networks, the Hour of Assignments, the Hour of the Cashbox, and the Hour of the Ministers. They portray the rituals and hierarchies of the palace, with all eyes turned to the centre and everyone scrambling to catch the attention and favour of the monarch.

Part two describes the last years of the regime: a failed 1960 coup which involved some of those closest to the emperor, an obsession with "development" which amounted to lip-service rather than practice, and the 1968 uprising in Gojam. The focus remains on the court, however, which turned in upon itself and became increasingly disconnected from society.

The end came with famine in the north, student unrest, international attention on Ethiopia, and military rebellions. Kapuscinski's attention is not on these events but on how they were perceived at the centre, and on the final months in 1974 in which the Emperor did nothing while the group of army officers (the Dergue) which had seized power isolated and gradually eliminated his entire court, eventually deposing him.

The Emperor is a powerful and compelling study. Kapuscinski has surely reworked and sharpened the accounts for effect — they are too well written, and in some cases too finely balanced between irony and sarcasm. And with its use of anonymous contributors and lack of references it is hardly a work of history or a reliable source. As a portrait of ossified and ritualised autocracy, however, with layers of bureaucracy preventing information reaching the centre or action being carried out, The Emperor is hard to put down and hard to forget.

August 2007

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%T The Emperor
%S Downfall of an Autocrat
%A Kapuscinski, Ryszard
%M Polish
%F William R. Brand
%F Katarzyna Mroczkowska-Brand
%I Penguin
%D 2006 [1978]
%O paperback
%G ISBN-13 9780141188034
%P 164pp