The Emperor:
Downfall of an Autocrat
Ryszard Kapuściński
(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt --- 1978)

    In the evenings I listened to those who had known the Emperor's court. Once they had been people of the Palace or had enjoyed the right of admission there. Not many of them remained. Some had perished, shot by the firing squad. Some had escaped the country; others had been locked in the dungeons beneath the Palace, cast down from the chambers to the cellars. Some were hiding in the mountains or living disguised as monks in cloisters... I visited them after dark. I had to change cars and disguises. The Ethiopians are deeply distrustful and found it hard to believe in the sincerity of my intentions: I wanted to recapture the world that had been wiped away by the machine guns of the Fourth Division.
--- Ryszard Kapuściński

All governments lie, but disaster lies in wait for countries
whose officials smoke the same hashish they give out.
--- I.F. Stone

He was the 225th and last Emperor of Ethiopia, official title: "His Imperial Majesty Haile Selassie I, Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah, King of Kings and Elect of God." In mid-September 1974, at the age of 82, after 44 years on the throne, one of his own army officers came to him, explained that his reign had ended, walked him out of the palace to a waiting car --- a dingy green VW Bug. Another officer opened the door and pushed the front seat forward so the small, rickety man could climb into the back. It was then that he voiced "his only gesture of protest that morning," Kapuściński writes. "'You can't be serious!' the Emperor bridled. 'I'm supposed to go like this?'" Then he clambered into the vehicle and it drove off.

Little more than a year later, he was dead. Initially the death was said to be from natural causes, but a December 1994 New York Times article reported that, "An Ethiopian court described today how Emperor Haile Selassie was 'strangled in his bed most cruelly' in 1975 by order of the leaders of a Marxist military coup." And according to, "In 1992 Haile Selassie's remains were discovered buried under a toilet in the Imperial Palace. In November 2000 the late emperor received a proper burial when his body was laid to rest in Addis Ababa's Trinity Cathedral."

After the Emperor's death, Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuściński traveled to Ethiopia, at some risk to himself, sought out many who'd served under Selassie in the palace and asked them to tell him what life was like there --- at its apex, and as it unraveled. Kapuściński, an acclaimed, meticulous, well-traveled, veteran journalist, took it all down clearly, accurately, and arranged their evocative words to tell the story of Selassie and his final years, then put it together in three sections --- The Throne; It's Coming, It's Coming; and The Collapse --- occasionally stepping in to narrate or contextualize, and produced this powerful, singular work of journalism. Or did he?

Well, yes, OK, he did, after a fashion, but in truth, how much is poetry and how much is journalism, and, by the way, what's truth? Those are the questions that burn like a noonday sun in Addis Ababa, and which have now been asked by so many. They're the questions that can never really be answered. Personally, I don't care. I believe Kapuściński took the absolutely correct approach in distilling truth from this shattered, diffracted, mirage-like subject matter, this East African Rashomon. As Steinbeck put it in Sweet Thursday, "There are people who will say that this whole account is a lie, but a thing isn't necessarily a lie even if it didn't necessarily happen." In this case, however, though the events indeed took place, what some have taken issue with is the form of reportage Kapuściński employed in The Emperor, the perhaps too-polished prose coming from the mouths and memories of various officials, servants, bureaucrats, all presented as direct quotations (who talks like that?)

At the heart of what Kapuściński was up to when writing The Emperor and several of his other remarkable works (his approach has been called Magical Journalism, a "non-fiction" sibling of Marquez's Magical Realism) is alluded to in this passage from a 2012 review of a book about the journalist in the Columbia Journalism Review: "Strict accuracy was not his paramount concern; when a friend who had been with him during riots in Dar es Salaam commented that he had misreported certain details, she says he shouted at her, 'You don't understand a thing! I'm not writing so the details add up --- the point is the essence of the matter.' Thus he left a long list of embellishments... to catalog. When Kapuściński wrote, for example, that fish in Lake Victoria became big after feeding on the corpses dumped there by Idi Amin, he was telling a good tale, but not one that was true."

Nonetheless, in apparent acknowledgment that Kapuściński's work revealed something deeper and truer than conventional journalism, CJR titled its review, "A Master's Missteps: Fixated on Kapuściński's flaws, a new biography misses the point."

The point, then --- and it's one that was made repeatedly back in the day by many of the New Journalism school, such as Tom Wolfe and Hunter S. Thompson, to name but two from a vast herd of trickster-scribblers that first emerged in the 1960s --- is that truth, like the proverbial feline, can be skinned in many ways. And that sometimes the most effective means of disclosing truth is by coming at it from several directions.

And let's not forget that mainstream, bigtime, conventional journalism, which aspires to the noble, albeit impossible: Objectivity, can be bent and shaded and finessed in a host of ways and often is (by both the left and the right), and that this has occurred many times in no less a paragon of journalistic purity than the New York Times and virtually every other outpost of corporate media (the name Wen Ho Lee comes to mind; or maybe indisputable proof of weapons of mass destruction justifying a post-9/11 attack on Iraq). Fox News, on the other hand, takes journalistic contortion, distortion and gymnastics to a whole other level. Be that as it may, in The Emperor, Kapuściński's concern is the essence of the matter, which he indeed conveys with sterling accuracy. Let the nit pickers pick their nits. Let's proceed to the goings on in and around the Addis Ababa palace of the Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah.

Following a brief introduction, the personal accounts in the book begin with a memory from someone identified (as all the interviewees are) by initial or initials only. "F" is the person whose job it was to make things right when Selassie's pup pissed on the feet of those visiting the Emperor. "'It was a small dog,'" F tells the journalist, "'a Japanese breed. His name was Lulu. He was allowed to sleep in the Emperor's great bed. During various ceremonies, he would run away from the Emperor's lap and pee on dignitaries' shoes. The august gentlemen were not allowed to flinch or make the slightest gesture when they felt their feet getting wet. I had to walk among the dignitaries and wipe the urine from their shoes with a satin cloth. This was my job for ten years.'"

Selassie slept little, Kapuściński reports, and as he aged he shrunk to about 110 pounds. When he slept in his big wooden bed, "L.C." says, "He was so light and frail that you couldn't see him --- he was lost among the sheets...He ate less and less, and he never drank alcohol . . . His Majesty never forgot about this infirmity of his old age [stiffness and a foot dragging gait], which he did not want to reveal lest it weaken the prestige and solemnity of the King of Kings. But we servants of the royal bedchamber, who saw his unguarded moments, knew how much the effort cost him."

"L.C" continues,

"Let me add, however, that the Emperor never showed the slightest sign of irritation, nervousness, anger, rage, or frustration. It seemed that he never knew such states, that his nerves were cold and dead like steel, or that he had no nerves at all. It was an inborn characteristic that His Highness knew how to develop and perfect, following the principle that in politics nervousness signifies a weakness that encourages opponents and emboldens subordinates to make secret jokes. His Majesty knew that a joke is a dangerous form of opposition, and he kept his psyche in perfect order."

In any leader, this quality of seeming emotionlessness, the ability to not show ones hand, to never entirely remove the mask, is part of the essential toolkit for wielding power. A certain tightly-controlled sociopathic schizophrenia can be useful, perhaps essential (from CEOs, presidents, premiers, and prime ministers to kings and queens, it's a common attribute). To be simultaneously cool and warmly engaged; to indicate concern and attention, even jocularity, while maintaining remoteness; to charm without becoming intimate; to get inside another (sometimes literally) without letting them inside you; to make an individual feel that they are the only person in the room when you are listening to them --- these are character traits seen in virtually all the most successful key players on corporate, national and international stages. Selassie possessed them in abundance, both in public and private.

"Y. M.":

"The Emperor began his day by listening to informers' reports. The night breeds dangerous conspiracies, and Haile Selassie knew that what happens at night is more important than what happens during the day. During the day he kept his eye on everyone; at night that was impossible. For that reason, he attached great importance to the morning reports. And here I would like to make one thing clear: His Venerable Majesty was no reader. For him, neither the written nor the printed word existed; everything had to be relayed by word of mouth. His Majesty had had no schooling. His sole teacher --- and that only during his childhood --- was a French Jesuit, Monsignor Jerome, later Bishop of Harar and a friend of the poet Arthur Rimbaud. This cleric had no chance to inculcate the habit of reading in the Emperor . . . "

The Emperor wrote down nothing and all directives were given verbally, whispered to the appropriate person. This ensured complete deniability. "Y.M.": "The custom of relating things by word of mouth had this advantage: if need be, the Emperor could say that a given dignitary had told him something quite different from what had really been said, and the latter could not defend himself, having no written proof. Thus the Emperor heard from his subordinates not what they told him, but what he thought should be said . . . he also never wrote anything and never signed anything in his own hand. Though he ruled for half a century, not even those closest to him knew what his signature looked like."

It's not much of a revelation to hear that Selassie was an iron-handed control freak; you don't stay in power for 44 years by being a laid back, loosey-goosey, cuddle bunny. "E" tells Kapuściński that "Any expenditure, anywhere in the Empire, of more than ten dollars required [the Emperor's] personal approval, and if a minister came to ask approval for spending only one dollar, he would be praised. To repair a minister's car --- the Emperor's approval is needed. To replace a leaking pipe in the city --- the Emperor's approval is needed. To buy sheets for a hotel --- the Emperor must approve it."

There is, sadly, a standard trajectory that many leaders of African countries follow --- some, certainly not all, may have started their public lives as seemingly enlightened, idealistic figures, men of the people, leading a battle to break the chains of colonialism or western domination of their countries, freedom fighters battling from the bush to throw out a tyrannical dictator. Then, over the years, often decades, the narcotic of power and seduction of vast wealth become irresistible (today, the majority of Africa's heads of state are worth hundreds of millions if not billions of dollars and preside over countries where people live on $1 to $2 a day; amazingly, Mugabe of Zimbabwe is said to be worth a paltry $10 million --- compared to his fellow heads of state on the vast continent, he's a veritable pauper).

Corruption becomes epidemic, spreads like a virus and the leader's colleagues, officers, ministers and family members also become fabulously wealthy. As the arc of a leader traverses the years he becomes an entrenched demagogue, threatening, jailing and disappearing his opponents, stealing elections (if he has even bothered to fabricate a facade of democracy in his nation), channeling more and more of the country's funds into his personal accounts, putting that money into foreign banks, real estate and shadow ownership of businesses in Paris, New York, Stockholm, wherever. It's an old and cliché story, but unfortunately a true and pervasive one.

Selassie was no exception. He brought real advances to Ethiopia, but his government's ethical decay, and his willingness to look the other way, sabotaged what could have been. The irony is that though his decades-long reign cost Ethiopians dearly (he was worth hundreds of millions, maybe much more), the advances he initiated and funded --- the first schools, universities, programs to send students abroad --- may, as some of his underlings in this book contend --- have also been his undoing. Both the young and the army, and finally his own son, became dissatisfied with the Emperor and his policies, the talk of progress and development contrasted by famine, intolerance, oppression, joblessness turned the tide against him. Thus the cliché narrative continued and the predictable denouement arrived.

In his story Kapuściński piles detail upon detail in fascinating fashion to reveal the truth of how and why a country and its people go to pieces when repeatedly pressed under the thumb of an all powerful autocrat --- in the case of Ethiopia, a tiny, soft-spoken, mild mannered tyrant, variously known by those who served him as,

    His Venerable Highness, His Distinguished Highness, His Benevolent Majesty, His Peerless Majesty, His Most Exalted Majesty, His Sublime Highness, Our Distinguished Monarch, His Venerable Majesty, His Most Virtuous Highness, Chosen One of God, His Supreme Majesty, His Magnanimous Highness, His Imperial Highness, His Most Unrivaled Majesty, His Worthy Majesty, His Indefatigable Majesty, His August Majesty, His Charitable Majesty, His Merciful Highness, His Imperial Majesty, His Ineffable Highness, His Compassionate Majesty, His Most Praiseworthy Highness, His Kindly Majesty, His Most Sublime Majesty, His Unrivaled Highness, His Most Gracious Majesty, His Masterful Highness, His Most Unparalleled Highness, the Supreme Benefactor, His Providential Majesty, His Unexcelled Majesty,

to cite just a few. His critics notwithstanding, Kapuściński does in fact give us the essence of the matter with impressive precision. Considering the scope of time and history and the impact of Selassie on Ethiopia, that Kapuściński may (or may not) have used unconventional methods to put across his account is hardly relevant, is it?

--- Douglas Cruickshank
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