Form and Content

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 794

Illustration of PDF document

Download The Emperor Study Guide

Subscribe Now

In May, 1963, the Polish journalist and essayist Ryszard Kapuciski was an observer at the establishment, in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, of the Organization of African Unity (OAU) under the sponsorship of Emperor Haile Selassie. In the intervening years he made other trips to Ethiopia. After the fall of the emperor in 1974, Kapuciski returned to Ethiopia to report on what had happened. There he made contact with former members of the deposed Emperor’s household. With their statements as its base, this book is Kapuciski’s presentation as well as his interpretation of the events and conditions that brought an end to Haile Selassie’s reign.

Kapuciski’s form here is not that of a newspaper reporter’s, with its emphasis on giving the facts as objectively as possible; he presents what he has to say largely in the form of transcriptions of “interviews” with these people. Onetime dignitaries, middle-level functionaries, and servants, they were hiding in Addis Ababa, fugitives from the new government, and consented to interviews only with the assurance that their identities would not be revealed. Therefore, each statement is preceded by the speaker’s initials only.

The book is divided into three major sections—“The Throne,” “It’s Coming, It’s Coming,” and “The Collapse”—each introduced by quotations from various sources chosen to set the tone of the division. Each of these larger sections is divided into smaller groupings of statements by the various speakers. Between these groups, the author enters directly into the work, speaking in his own voice and providing historical and personal background; his contributions are printed in italics, not only signaling to the reader that the author is using his own voice but also announcing a new step in the development of the particular larger division. The final two entries of the book are brief quotations from news reports: The first reports that the Emperor, although deposed, still believes himself to be Ethiopia’s ruler; the second, very brief and from the official press of the revolutionary Ethiopian government, reports his death from “circulatory failure.”

“The Throne” describes the Emperor’s mornings as ruler: After one of his servants relates how badly Haile Selassie slept as he grew older, another speaks of the Emperor’s first act of the day, a walk in the garden of the New Palace in Addis Ababa while listening to a series of reports by spies. He then would go to the Old Palace and hold his various audiences, hour by hour: the Hour of Assignments, when ministers, governors, clerks, were appointed or reassigned or removed; the Hour of the Cashbox, when money was given or promised to petitioners; the Hour of the Ministers, when the Emperor received reports. “The Throne” ends with the morning; Kapuciski never describes the afternoon, perhaps implying that only in the morning was any serious business undertaken.

“It’s Coming, It’s Coming” foreshadows the end of the reign through flashbacks to the events of the years 1960 and 1968. The Emperor spent most of his time traveling, in this manner escaping the problems of his nation. In 1960, while Haile Selassie was away in Brazil, a rebellion erupted, led by a young man on whom the Emperor had bestowed favors. The palace guard joined the rebellion, while the army supported the Emperor; the rebellion was quashed, the ringleaders committing suicide or being executed. In 1968, the peasants of Gojam Province revolted. This revolt was also suppressed, but it signaled the nation’s growing disaffection. The Emperor responded by instituting three more “hours,” in the afternoon: the Hour of Development, in which new modernizing and meaningless projects were set in motion; the International Hour; and the Army-Police Hour, in which the Emperor rewarded these protectors of the Crown.

In the last section, “The Collapse,” Haile Selassie is presented through the words of his courtiers as a passive sovereign, by his very inaction acquiescing in his own demise. A famine developed in the north, but the court denied that there was anything wrong. When a British broadcaster made a documentary on the famine victims, the facts could not be denied; still, the Emperor and his court failed to act, except to import Swedish instructors to teach calisthenics. The young, especially the young soldiers who had been educated outside the country, recognized the moral emptiness of the state and began to build their own power base. There is no violent revolt this time—there was no need for one. At last the conspirators moved: Saying that they were acting in the Emperor’s name, they arrested his closest advisers, until his whole demoralized court abandoned him and he was left in the palace with only his valet. The conspirators removed the Emperor to a distant palace and announced that he had been deposed.


Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 51

Blake, Patricia. Review in Time. CXXII (July 18, 1983), p. 66.

Osiatynski, Wiktor. Review in The Antioch Review. XLII (Fall, 1984), pp. 495-502.

Prescott, Peter S. Review in Newsweek. CI (April 11, 1983), p. 76.

Smiley, Xan. Review in The New York Times Book Review. LXXXVIII (May 29, 1983), p. 9.

Updike, John. Review in The New Yorker. LIX (May 16, 1983), p. 122.


Critical Essays