Matthew's Reviews > The Emperor

The Emperor by Ryszard Kapuściński
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's review
Mar 19, 2012

it was ok
bookshelves: history-africa

For years I had heard what a wonderful writer Kapuscinski was but to me this book was a let down. It read more like a tell-all scandal rag rather than the superior journalistic account it was touted to be. Additionally the book, reflective of the journalistic nature, just did not have the depth needed on the topic. Sadly, there just is not another account available on the background of the end of Haile Salassie and the rise of the Marxists in Ethiopia.

The book consists of three parts: Part I: The Throne consisted of little more than scuttlebutt concerning Haile Salassie (One interesting nugget: Haile Salassie had come to power by manipulation of dynastic lines and thus could been seen as a figure who himself had used a coup to come to power.); Part II: It’s Coming, It’s Coming: Briefly touches upon the unsuccessful 1960 palace coup attempt by his son and his supporters and sets up the intra-palace factions (“Jailers,” arrest everyone, “Talkers,” people who advocated negotiations with rebels, and “Floaters,” who did not do much but pass moment to moment without reflection); and Part III: The Collapse: Coverage of the rise of the “Derg” military group, led by Mengistu Haile-Mariam and backed by students and workers that ultimately pushed Haile Salassie from power and his death by heart failure during palace arrest in 1975.

One of the book’s main themes is that that Salassie, by first not considering and then refusing when it was clear that his power was in decline to become a constitutional monarch was like monarchs of the earlier 20th Century who tried to cling to power despite the advances of technological modernity and it linked representational government (Wilhelm II of Germany, Nicholas II of Russia, etc.), in part responsible for his own downfall. The situation of Salssie’s decline of power was one not for the most part perceived in the West as there he was still seen as the figure who stood up to Mussolini (and even that is more myth than reality as he Salassie fled Ethiopia and let various freedom fighters take on the fascist invaders in the 1930s and 1940s). Additionally, the famine that I when coming to understand the larger world was the primary association with Ethiopia was already a part, an ignored part by the palace, of the Ethiopian landscape and thus an obvious factor in the eventual successful rebellion by among other Ethiopians, the military, university students, and petrol-less taxi drivers.
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Michael Perkins I had read most of Kapuściński's books when I gave this book a try. It's his first and, by far, worst book. Am now reading his second book, "Shah of Shahs, that has the familiar Kapuściński mojo to it.

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