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The Emperor by Ryszard Kapuscinski

The Emperor (edition 1989)

by Ryszard Kapuscinski

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7111513,267 (4.11)35
Title:The Emperor
Authors:Ryszard Kapuscinski
Info:Vintage (1989), Paperback, 176 pages
Collections:Read Non-Fiction

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The Emperor by Ryszard Kapuściński

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Showing 1-5 of 14 (next | show all)
Kapuscinski alleges that these are transcripts of former members of Haile Selassie's court, but I wonder why they all seem to speak in the same manner and I also wonder why they all seem to utter stereotypical old chestnuts. I didn't finish the book because as elegant and entertaining as the writer's style was, the book felt like an exploitation. It's creative fiction, not creative non-fiction. ( )
  kaitanya64 | Jan 3, 2017 |
Not only about the end of Haile Selassie, but also about the decline of Communism in Poland. A clever, satirical text that works on multiple levels. ( )
  soylentgreen23 | Jul 3, 2016 |
Ryszard Kapuściński (1932 – 2007) was a Polish journalist and writer. He published many works on history and politics, based on his journalistic work, and was considered an authority particularly with regard to African nations. The German journalist Claus Christian Malzahn described Kapuściński as "one of the most credible journalists the world has ever seen", and he has been attributed with a "penetrating intelligence" and a "crystallised descriptive" writing style. Kapuściński was a serious contender for the Nobel Prize.

The emperor. Downfall of an autocrat is a literary work describing the final years of the reign of Haile Selassie I, the Emperor of Ethiopia from 1930 to 1974, and the revolution that deposed him. Despite the fact that Kapuściński had earned the epithet of being a most credible journalist, readers would be ill advised to take the content of the book at face value. Many peculiar statements in the book rather suggest that The emperor. Downfall of an autocrat is a fictionalized account of the events, and should perhaps rather be read as a piece of fiction, rather than non-fiction. Although the book is presented as a veritable account of the decline and fall or the empire, it has been suggested that the book makes little more sense than Samuel Johnson’s The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia. Instead of journalistics writing, the account has characteristics of an allegory.

Explanations for the allegorical, fictional nature of The emperor. Downfall of an autocrat can be sought in two areas, namely the political and the literary. During the 1970s, when Ryszard Kapuściński was active as a reporter in Africa, foreign travel for people from socalled "East-block" countries was not at all self-evident. Most people from East-European communist countries could not travel to foreign countries other than those encompassed within the sphere of countries under communist rule, such as the Soviet Union or other "red" East-European countries. It has been suggested that The emperor. Downfall of an autocrat has meaning at a deeper level, and that it can be read as a criticism of the Communist leadership of Poland at that time. However, this interpretation, 25 years after the end of communism in Europe and the end of the Cold War is obscure, and unlikely to be part of the reception of contemporary readers. The edition of The emperor. Downfall of an autocrat published in 2006, in the series of Penguin Modern Classics, is preceded by a introduction, written by Neal Ascherson, who is an expert on Poland. However, the introduction does convincingly support this interpretation.

On the other hand, the author seems to have given in to working the material in such a way to create a wholly new genre of writing, within the domain of literary fiction. The emperor. Downfall of an autocrat could well be read as a piece of creative non-fiction or fictionalized realism. In 1994, the term magic journalism was coined, as a pendant to magic realism. Narrative technique, including absurdism, distortion, exaggeration and hyperbole would then feature in a narrative account that relates the history of the reign of an emperor in a faraway country. It has been pointed out, also see above, that Polish readers had very little exposure to the outside world and even less experience of travelling, themselves. As a piece of fiction, The emperor. Downfall of an autocrat could offer Polish readers an escape into an exotic realm. The absurdistics character of the description of Haile Selassie's despotism, with all the typical characteristics of feudalism or an arbitrary, absolute monarch would much appeal to readers with a firm Marxist indoctrination. (NB.: feudalism here in the marxist interpretation.) The story would then carry all kinds of connotations to readers with a firm background in Marxism, such as the backwardness of a Western country, the wickedness of an aristocratic society, headed by a monarch. In the literary sense, The emperor. Downfall of an autocrat shares some characterists with Evelyn Waugh's novel Black Mischief.

Ryszard Kapuściński was admired by the Colombian writer Gabriel García Márquez and Chilean writer Luis Sepúlveda, who, writing in the same style of magic realism, accorded him the title "Maestro". In fact, the narrative style of The emperor. Downfall of an autocrat shares some characteristics with the baroque style of the great novels of the magic realism of these Latin-American authors. To write the book, Kapuściński claimed to have relied on informers, who were former servants or officials at the imperial court. To protect their identity, their names are concealed, and only their initials are given. Doubt has been cast on whether all these informers truly existed. Thoughout the book, Kapuściński makes various claims and statements which can be proved to be untrue, for example that the emperor did not read. The honorific titles, used to refer to the emperor are almost certainly invented, and offices and positions described as the court never actually existed. The emperor. Downfall of an autocrat is de facto a mixture of fact and fiction.

The emperor. Downfall of an autocrat is a relatively short book, at 164 pages, divided into three sections: "The Throne", describing the court of Haile Selassie I, "It's Coming, It's Coming" describing the beginnings of unrest and a first attempted coup in the 1960s, and part 3, "The Collapse" which describes the revolution and the aftermath.

Ryszard Kapuściński died in 2007. The Penguin Modern Classics edition reprints the original 1983 translation of The emperor. Downfall of an autocrat. The introduction in this edition, written by Neal Ascherson is of little use. For a better understanding of the African works of Kapuściński, I would suggest to read the Review of Kapuściński by John Ryle for the Times Literary Supplement (27 July 2001): "At play in the bush of ghosts: Tales of Mythical Africa" Extended with post publication note, 2001 and 2007.

The emperor. Downfall of an autocrat is an ambivalent work of literature. Whether it should be read as a piece of literary non-fiction, or fictionalized journalism, and to which genre or sub-genre it belongs is undecided. Clearly, the literary reception of the book can benefit from further analysis. This could perhaps best be achieved with a new translation, and comprehensive annotation by experts or a critical reading of the Polish edition. Till then, readers in English have free reign to explore and appreciate this highly curious work of prose. ( )
1 vote edwinbcn | Feb 25, 2016 |
Although I was somewhat hampered by my lack of knowledge of Haile Sailese's reign, it was still a very fascinating book. I'll have to pull out The Shadow of the Sun from the lower depths of the reading pile.
  amyem58 | Jul 3, 2014 |
Superb and terribly insightful. Background and downfall told through the eyes of the palace elite with commentary by Kapuscinski. ( )
  untraveller | Mar 26, 2013 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Ryszard Kapuścińskiprimary authorall editionscalculated
Brand, William R.Translatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Mroczkowska-Brand, KatarzynaTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed

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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0679722033, Paperback)

Haile Selassie, His Most Puissant Majesty and Distinguished Highness the Emperor of Ethiopia, enjoyed a 44-year reign until his own army gave him the boot in 1974. In the days following the coup, the Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski traveled to Ethiopia and sought out members of the imperial court for interviews.

His composite portrait of Selassie's crumbling imperium is an astonishing, wildly funny creation, beginning with the very first interview. "It was a small dog," recalls an anonymous functionary, "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." (Well, it's a living.)

Elsewhere, the interviewees venture into tragic or grotesque or downright unbelievable terrain. Kapuscinski has shaped their testimonies into an eloquent whole, and while he never alludes to the totalitarian regime that ruled his native Poland during the same period, the analogy is impossible to ignore.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:24:03 -0400)

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While Ethiopia collapsed around him in 1975, Kapuscinski travelled throughout the country listening to stories of the recently dead Supreme Emperor Haile Selassie by the servants and associates that had surrounded him. The Polish journalist transforms these interviews into a powerful narrative of high living and unimaginable abuse by the ancient regime.… (more)

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