The Books: “The Emperor” (Ryszard Kapuscinski)

My history bookshelf. Onward.

51SVKM3HQAL._SS500_.jpgNext book on this shelf is called The Emperor: Downfall of an Autocrat by Ryszard Kapuscinski. This is the story of the the fall of Haile Selassie, Emperor of Ethiopia. Kapuscinski went to Ethiopia, while the fighting for power was still going on, and tracked down Haile Selassie’s old servants and secretaries and butlers, etc. The “true believers”. And their interviews make up the bulk of the book. Most of the book is in their voices – with no editorial comment from Kapuscinski. We hear their delusions, prejudices, small-mindedness, or foresight – unimpeded. Intermittently, Kapuscinski will come in and write a couple of pages – pushing the events along.

I did a post about Haile Selassie – on the date he was deposed by the military. I used a lot of quotes from Kapuscinski’s book – interviews about his final days. That post – sitting in my archives – is one of those Google-friendly posts. It still gets a lot of traffic. Stuff like that always interests me. Who knew??

Here’s an excerpt from Kapuscinski. Kapuscinski describes a banquet he went to in Addis Ababa in 1963. The Emperor was hosting all of the presidents of independent Africa – and so he wanted to put on a show, and display that Ethiopia was a modern nation. Buildings were erected quickly, streets were cleared of peasants and camels, all of the poverty was basically hidden from view. Mud huts were destroyed – people left homeless – etc. Kapuscinski saw all this.

Then the reception itself.


From The Emperor: Downfall of an Autocrat by Ryszard Kapuscinski.

The Emperor threw an imposing reception for the meeting of the presidents. Wine and caviar were flowin in from Europe specially for the occasion. At a cost of twenty-five thousand dollars, Miram Makeba was brought from Hollywood to serenade the leaders with Zulu songs after the feast. All told, more than three thousand people, divided hierarchically into upper and lower categories, were invited. Each category received invitations of a different color and chose from a different menu.

The reception took place in the Emperor’s Old Palace. The guests passed long ranks of soldiers from the Imperial Guard, armed with sabers and halberds. From atop towers, spotlit trumpeters played the Emperor’s fanfare. In the galleries, theatrical troupes performed scenes from the lives of past Emperors. From the balconies, girls in folk costumes showered the guests with flowers. The sky exploded in plumes of fireworks.

When the guests had been seated at tables in the great hall, fanfares rang out and the Emperor walked in with President Nasser of Egypt at his right hand. They formed an extraordinary pair. Nasser, a tall, stocky, imperious man, his head thrust forward with his wide jaws set into a smile, and next to him the diminutive silhouette – frail, one could almost say – of Haile Selassie, worn by the years, with his thin, expressive face, his glistening, penetrating eyes. Behind them the remaining leaders entered in pairs. The audience rose; everyone was applauding. Ovations sounded for unity and the Emperor. Then the feast began. There was one dark-skinned wiater for every four guests. Out of excitement and nervousness, things were falling from the waiters’ hands. The table setting was silver, in the old Harar style. Several tons of priceless antique silver lay on those tables. Some people slipped pieces of silverware into their pockets. One sneaked a fork, the next one a spoon.

Mountains of meat, fruit, fish, and cheese rose on the tables. Many-layered cakes dripped with sweet, colored icing. Distinguished wines spread reflected colors and invigorating aromas. The music played on, and costumed clowns did somersaults to the delight of the carefree revelers. Time passed in conversation, laughter, consumption.

It was a splendid affair.

During these proceedings, I needed to find a quiet place, but I didn’t know where to look. I left the Great Chamber by a side door that led outside. It was a dark night, with a fine rain falling. A May rain, but a chilly one. A gentle slop led down from the door, and some distance below stood a poorly lit building without walls. A row of waiters stood in a line from the door to this building, passing dishes with leftovers from the banquet table. On those dishes a stream of bones, nibbled scraps, mashed vegetables, fish heads, and cut-away bits of meat flowed. I walked toward the building without walls, slipping on the mud and scattered bits of food.

I noticed that something on the other side was moving, shifting, murmuring, squishing, sighing, and smacking its lips. I turned the corner to have a closer look.

In the thick night, a crowd of barefoot beggars stood huddled together. The dishwashers working in the building threw leftovers to them. I watched the crowd devour the scraps, bones, and fish heads with laborious concentration. In the meticulous absorption of this eating there was an almost violent biological abandon — the satisfaction of hunger in anxiety and ecstasy.

From time to time the waiters would get held up, and the flow of dishes would stop. Then the crowd of beggars would relax as though someone had given them the order to stand at ease. People wiped their lips and straightened their muddy and food-stained rags. But soon the stream of dishes would start flowing again — because up there the great hogging, with smacking of lips and slurping, was going on, too — and the crowd would fall again to its blessed and eager labor of feeding.

I was getting soaked, so I returned to the Great Chamber to the Imperial party. I looked at the silver and gold on the scarlet velvet, at President Kasavuba, at my neighbor, a certain Aye Mamlaye. I breathed in the scent of roses and incense, I listened to the suggestive Zulu song that Miriam Makeba was singing, I bowed to the Emperor (an absolute requirement of protocol), and I went home.

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One Response to The Books: “The Emperor” (Ryszard Kapuscinski)

  1. Ken says:

    Kapuscinski paints quite a picture, he does.

    Odd story, and another of my (heh) memory phenomena–in the mid-1970s, courtesy of Jaws, my youngest brother went through a shark phase that rivaled the dinosaur phase of any red-blooded American boy. Therefore we had a lot of shark/Deadly Creatures of Doom from the Briny Deep books around the house. I remember a passage from one book (but unfortunately neither the title nor the author) about traveling in Africa earlier in the century, and an acquaintaince of the narrator–a fellow named Ras Tafari. :-)

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