The Emperor Essay - Critical Context

Ryszard Kapuściński

Critical Context

Although Kapuciski’s work offers itself on the surface as an analysis of the fall of Haile Selassie, it is not simply that. The Emperor also addresses two broader issues: the suffering of the weak and poor in Third World countries and political reactions to that suffering by both the international community and movements within the countries; and the conditions in Kapuciski’s own nation, Poland.

There is no question that Kapuciski’s indignation about the state of the Third World is deeply felt. Kapuciski avoids any direct discussion of international political issues in The Emperor; he never mentions the massive American involvement in prerevolutionary Ethiopia except indirectly, when he speaks of how a fashion show by the American Peace Corps, in allowing university students to come together, sparks the revolution. Nor does he ever speak of the Marxist orientation of many of the revolutionary leaders. Nevertheless, American support of Haile Selassie as well as the political faith of the new rulers is there by implication—and both are criticized.

Polish writing has a long history of being “Aesopian,” using some other country’s troubles in order to speak of Poland and Poland’s problems—as a response to, a way of circumventing, censorship by foreign or domestic governments. Certainly The Emperor was read by most Poles not only as an examination of its declared topic but also as a parable of the Polish world itself, a description of the Polish Communist state of the 1970’s. No Polish writer of Kapuciski’s generation and sophistication could have written what he did without intending more than what he said. Speaking of the “Ethiopian” press, for example, one of Kapuciski’s informants points out that “even what is written loyally can be read disloyally. Someone will start to read a loyal text, then he will want a disloyal one.” That informant speaks for Kapuciski. Indeed, in presenting the dark side of the revolutionary world in Ethiopia, Kapuciski momentarily drops his fable and begins to hint at that “disloyal” text.