The Emperor Essay - Critical Essays

Ryszard Kapuściński


Although Kapuciski is a journalist, The Emperor is not journalism in any traditional sense. It is not “objective,” and deliberately so. One could compare Kapuciski’s writing here to that of the American “new journalists,” in which the writer’s own personality and attitudes are expressed directly; like the new journalists, Kapuciski rejects the notion that journalists should—or can—report events objectively. This is not to say that Kapuciski’s is merely a personal or a biased account of Haile Selassie’s reign and fall; indeed, the italicized passages of text are intended to draw a line for the reader between reportage and the purely authorial voice. Rather, Kapuciski recognizes that any narrative of events is perforce shaped and defined by both the author’s perspective and the medium in which it is presented; he acknowledges that his is a precisely controlled work, a kind of art form in itself, one that allows the writer to do far more than report facts, which are not always the whole truth. Still, Kapuciski’s “art” is clearly art in the service of society, not art for psychology’s sake or art for its own sake. In this sense he is writing as an East European journalist as well as an artist.

Implicit in Kapuciski’s choice and presentation of events is his thematic matter: How much of appearance, political and personal, is falsity? There is a difference between the appearance of Haile Selassie’s power and the actuality of it; there is a difference between the image of Ethiopia that Haile Selassie offers the world and the dreadful truth—the poverty, cruelty, and exploitation. Nothing is as it appears to be. When the OAU comes to Addis Ababa, rows of the wretched houses of the poor are bulldozed and then decorated walls put up to hide the rest. The Emperor himself never sees and does not choose to see what Ethiopia really is: When he travels through the country, officials prepare for his visit by cosmeticizing the appallingly poor living conditions. He cannot, will not, appoint able people, because they would detract from his own prestige, his appearance. The one time Haile Selassie trusts a man of real ability, one who really wants to help others, the man almost of necessity leads a rebellion against the Emperor....

(The entire section is 925 words.)