Behind the Palace Doors – Kapuscinski’s The Emperor

The EmperorThe Emperor by Ryszard Kapuściński

You probably remember Lord Acton’s old line about absolute power, right? Acton died over a century ago, never living to see the rise of Hallie Selassie, but he left us with a pretty great description of his royal court.

The late Ryszard Kapuściński was a reporter for the Polish state press. For a long time, he was their only reporter, too. He spent time nearly everywhere: South America, Africa, Southeast Asia, even did a spell at the White House. He died in 2007 but left us with some of the best nonfiction ever written by a working journalist.

One of his best books is The Emperor, a deep look inside Selassie’s palace and at the revolution that toppled his government. Told primarily through the ministers and courtiers that lived and worked inside his palace, the book paints a vivid picture of a government that excelled in corruption and backstabbing, packed with flatterers and praise, which completely removed everyone who worked and lived within from reality. Some of the scenes in here are straight out of Kafka: a valet whose entire job is clean up after Selassie’s dog pees on dignitaries shoes, another whose job is place a pillow under the Emperor’s feet (Selassie liked tall thrones, but had short legs) and three competing spy networks, each of whom spent most of their time reporting on the other two. Other stories are more sobering: a minister who turns down bribes and flattering is put to death; crowds who aren’t allowed to look at Selassie; a minister whose job is to give money to the poor, but pockets most of it for himself (with Selassie’s approval).

Most damning, though, is the remove of his court from reality. Things start off as excessive: to avoid offending the Emperor, he only visits places specially prepared for his arrival: buildings are cleaned up, the hungry and poor shuffled off and his many palaces are kept continually stocked and ready for his arrival, including one he only visited once in over 20 years. The ministers Kapuściński speaks to don’t see anything strange about this: why should they offend the Emperor? He wisely lets them speak for themselves and, as it were, damn themselves.

It goes beyond such potemkin villages, though. As Ethiopia starves, his ministers defend their greed and corruption. They cut off aid, imposing high duties, letting villages starve in the name of progress. They kick out foreign journalists and decry opposition as people who wish to out their country down in the eyes of Western media. It’s not going to hell, it’s giving the country a chance to stand up for itself, they say. Soon the Army stages the first of several coups and things go to hell for the palace. People vanish in the middle of the night, never to be seen again. The people outside demand blood and the Palace is locked up like a prison. Before long, the Army has plucked everyone away and Selassie is alone, trapped in his own opulence.

What’s most striking about The Emperor is how little a role Kapuściński plays. Mostly, he stays out of the story, letting these ministers, valets and assorted voices of the regime dig their own holes; it’s a change from more personal histories, like The Soccer War. He occasionally intrudes to tell what life’s like post-Selassie: these people are all in hiding. But none of them sees why. It’s an informative read into what day-to-day life was like in a place where the leader was both incredibly corrupt and cruel, yet completely aloof from his own country.

Rating : 8/10. It’s a crazy read, looking this deep into Selassie’s palace and the sycophants within, but it’s a fascinating look into a despotic regime. Recommended to anyone who reads non-fiction, especially those with an interest in African affairs.


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