(from the West Coast Review of Books, circa 1981)
The Emperor: Downfall of an Autocrat by Ryszard Kapuscinski (Vintage Books) $5.95
THE EMPIRE OF ETHIOPIA was the world’s last ancien regime, and Haile Selassie was the last to proclaim his rule by Divine Right. In this stunning little book, Polish journalist Kapuscinski shows us its decay and ultimate collapse.
This is not ordinary history. Kapuscinski reconstructs the events in interviews conducted during and immediately after the Revolution, and the bulk of the book is taken verbatim from these chats. The result is an immediacy that seems to draw the reader out of a mere history and into the time itself. Each well chosen anecdote brings to light the fantastic disparity between the bizarre, despotic and fabulously wealthy Imperial household and the deadly poverty outside. Haile Selassie was virtually a god, his subjects prostrated themselves before him as mere mortals should. Merely mortal they were, for he killed them by the thousands.
The passing of time has softened our image of the emperors who once ruled the bulk of humanity; of old France we see Versailles, of old Russia the splendor of the Romanovs; of China paper-thin porcelain. We have forgotten the disparity and despair of the divine right to live at the expense of the vast bulk of one’s subjects. The old system stank. Our own Revolution was a complete break, though from an admittedly mild form. In France it was more desperate; in Russia and China even more so. Ethiopia was a space age repeat of the drama, the shift in the scales that has been going on since 1776.
Kapuscinski could see this, and recorded its passing in the words of those who not only spectated but participated, on both sides. He does not lecture us; his subjects, in their medieval innocence, do it for him. The images last a long time: a man, day after day, wiping the Imperial dog piddle off visiting dignitaries’ shoes. The Emperor solemnly tossing table scraps to the frenzied mob. A shining palace, fully stocked, staffed and watered, standing unused in the burning desert. Famine in the midst of plenty because God, in His Wisdom, made it so. Finally the soldiers of the Marxist Revolution bowing and trembling before the imprisoned Lion of Judah. With his little tape recorder Kapuscinski has made the progress of the last two centuries brutally clear.