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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 925

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 Emperor’s “hours” of development and international matters appear at first to be positive steps but in practice are merely empty activity, hiding the truth.

In addition to this selection of events designed to juxtapose appearance to truth, Kapuciski’s use of on-site witnesses to the events both heightens the reportorial quality of the book and underscores his vision of the events: His informants, speaking in their own voices in the first person, say things in such a way that Kapuciski is also speaking through them at the same moment, analyzing them, as well as the events and circumstances they relate: They praise the Emperor as a great man and in the same sentence denigrate him, present him as a fool. They assert the value of the old ways and then show how those old ways were empty, vain, and vicious. Moreover, Kapuciski’s informants are not differentiated by their way of speaking; each speaker sounds very much like the next one, using images and metaphors that are deliberately artificial, often almost surrealistic, certainly not the normal language of such people: One speaker, talking of the Emperor’s informers, asserts that ‘‘ears appeared everywhere, sticking up out of the ground, glued to the walls, flying through the air. . . .” The author’s voice then takes over their voices momentarily in a tricky balancing act, making for a complex irony. Sometimes the author’s own voice is too insistent, too blatant, and the original speaker disappears altogether, but most of the time the two voices blend into one.

Kapuciski’s analysis is characterized by his use of irony as well. In his report of his meetings with the fallen courtiers, in which he goes by night and by back ways, and in his description of the paranoid fetasha, or “searches” by soldiers, that took place in the first months of the new regime, Kapuciski creates a connection between the old state of Haile Selassie and the new state of the revolution. The new regime mistrusts everyone, as did Haile Selassie. The beginning connects with the end; the old and the new are more similar than they at first appear. That is precisely Kapuciski’s point.

This circular structure is supported by an infrastructure of juxtaposition that constantly points up the similarities, as well as the differences, between the two historical forces at work: For example, speaking in his own voice, Kapuciski quotes lines from the English writer Evelyn Waugh’s eyewitness account of the Emperor’s coronation in 1930. Waugh rather nastily presents the Ethiopian workers as inert, unmoving, with a suggestion that they represent the Ethiopian world. Kapuciski follows this with his description of preparations for the 1963 OAU meeting, when there was much more violent activity. The two scenes, set against each other, highlight the fact that Ethiopian inertia and Ethiopian activity lead to the same end, a facade behind which there is nothing substantial. Waugh pictures a moment when Haile Selassie has real power but does nothing; in 1963, Haile Selassie has apparent power and does nothing. His fall is inevitable, implicit in his own inertia. Moreover, Kapuciski is presenting these two past moments in the context of a present that is dangerous, confused, and perhaps as meaningless—and meaningful.

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Critical Context