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The Emperor’s Deathbed: An Exchange

Virginia Quarterly Review | Thursday, Jan 17, 2008

The Emperor’s Deathbed: An Exchange
Lawrence Weschler
Kapuścińskito Symposium


Weschler: Ryszard Kapuściński was a master at jousting with the censors, perhaps nowhere more spectacularly than in his seminal masterpiece, The Emperor, published in Warsaw in 1978, which is to say during the last years of Polish party leader Edward Gierek’s stupendously corrupt and incompetent regime. Although Kapuściński’s eyewitness account of the collapse, earlier that decade, of the stupendously corrupt and incompetent Ethiopian regime of Haile Selassie couldn’t have helped but set off allegorical alarms all up and down the reading food-chain there in Warsaw, it had clearly placed the regime’s censors in an exquisite quandary: Haile Selassie had been a capitalist-supported pig through and through, eventually overthrown by insurgent forces allied to the Warsaw Pact, and one couldn’t very well complain about or condemn that, such that the splendid experience of reading Kapuściński’s account, as it dribbled out in installments that late-Gierek summer, was rendered all the more thrilling for the residents of Warsaw as they simultaneously got to imagine the knots of compunction and misgiving, the veritable conniptions, the text must earlier have been giving the censors to whom it had first been presented. Nor had Kapuściński himself been shy in anticipating those torments in the text itself. Thus, for example, at one point he has one of his interlocutors explaining, “His Highness worked on the assumption that even the most loyal press should not be given in abundance. . . . For even what is written loyally can be read disloyally.” A virtual map of misreading, that—a veritable instruction manual in how to read what followed.

Kapuściński’s reportages always presented themselves in four aspects. (I have written about all this at considerably greater length in my essay “Allegories of Eastern Europe.”) First, of course, as superb reportage, pure and simple, of the situation that they purport to recount (or rather perhaps a kind of rhapsodic looking back upon a situation, now years past, which at the time could only be recounted, press-agency style, in broadest strokes and at a headline clip; a looking back that at long last allowed the inclusion of details—of smells, sounds, sensations, doubts, and hesitations—that the press of time and event had earlier precluded). But then, second, as a general allegory, for The Emperor reads as the nightmare prospect eternally dogging Machiavelli’s Prince, a spellbinding anatomization of every sort of court-life and of the way that authority, no matter how brilliantly accrued, over time relentlessly bleeds away. And, third, as a conspicuous allegory of the specific situation back in Poland (the particulars of Selassie’s downfall, for example, as an eerie premonition of the coming fate of Gierek’s regime, which would fall only two years later with the upsurge of Solidarity, in whose ensuing wake Polish stages would suddenly blossom with no fewer than seventeen separate adaptations of Kapuściński’s Ethiopian saga). And then, finally, these books read as literature, and of the highest order, waiting to be slotted there on the bookshelf, among Borges and García Márquez and Bruno Schulz, and of course right there next to Kafka.

Rushdie: What brilliance, what brilliance was there. And what a strong and profoundly seeing and antic imagination.

I first heard of Ryszard Kapuściński in 1983. My novel Midnight’s Children had just been published in paperback by Sonny Mehta, who was at that time running Picador in England. I remember going to Sonny’s office, and he had this book on his desk. He said, “This is the best book I think I’ve ever read.” I said, “Oh yeah?” He said, “You must take this book away and read it today, and you will agree with me.” I said, “What’s it called?” He said, “It’s called The Emperor, and it’s about Haile Selassie, and it’s written by this Polish writer.” I took it away and read it that night and was obliged to call Sonny the next day and tell him that he was right. Since then I have read just about everything that Ryszard wrote, but The Emperor remains the book that I love the most.

Some years later, a stage production of The Emperor, put on in London at the Royal Court Theatre (an English adaptation of one of those mentioned by Ren Weschler), led to one of the most surrealist political demonstrations I have ever seen. (And I say this as someone whose work has occasionally led to protest; I’m something of a connoisseur of the form.) Outside of the Royal Court Theatre, in Sloane Square, there was a protest that only Kapuściński could have conjured up. Half of the demonstrators wore extremely expensive suits and carried rather well printed placards and were members of the old Ethiopian monarchist party, which objected to his portrayal of Haile Selassie, because, after all, he had been their emperor. The other half of the demonstration were people in knitted hats and dreadlocks who were Rastafarians and thought of Haile Selassie as God and objected to the blasphemy of Ryszard’s portrayal. So you had on the one hand ganja-smoking Rastas and on the other the cigar-smoking Ethiopians. And I thought, this book must be doing something right.

And some of the scenes in Kapuściński do transcend reportage and simply become part of one’s imaginative life. The character of the Minister of the Pen in The Emperor, for instance, who sits next to and bends down to Selassie and into whose ear Haile Selassie whispers his commands, and the minister repeats them—the emperor’s actual words are never heard—and we hear how Haile Selassie doesn’t really mind if the minister doesn’t accurately report what he says, because the only quality that he values in his servants is loyalty. He doesn’t care about honesty, morality, integrity, truthfulness; all he cares about is loyalty. There’s a metaphor there about the nature of absolute power which does transcend the text. And we all remember, those of us who’ve read the book, the guy whose job it is to put the cushion under the feet of the emperor when he sits down on the throne, because the emperor is very small. The cushion cannot be put there too quickly, otherwise it looks as if you’re trying to show that the emperor is not too small, and it should not be placed there too late, otherwise the emperor’s feet dangle for a split second and that’s a capital offense. And the character who has to open doors the emperor walks through, where the door must not be opened too soon otherwise it looks merely like an artifice, and the door must not be opened too late otherwise the emperor bumps into it. The door must simply dissolve before the emperor, as if by magic. Such are the sorts of moments for which I cherish the memory of Kapuściński, the moments in which, time and again, reportage acquires the quality of great poetry and literature.

Probably the only real disagreement I ever had with Kapuściński was about The Emperor, because, beautiful as it is—and indeed, it becomes like a work of poetry as well as reportage—there is nevertheless a certain, what shall I say, disrespect for facts (which you occasionally encounter in the work of Kapuściński). In the case of The Emperor, the book ends with the tragic—or poignant—image of Haile Selassie dying in bed still believing he was emperor of Ethiopia. Whereas this is not how Haile Selassie died. He was murdered in his bed. He was smothered to death by the Marxist regime that had succeeded him. And it seemed a flaw in this otherwise great book that the death of the emperor was romanticized. Ryszard looked cross, when I told him this, and he refused to discuss it and took the refuge of the artist, that his version was what worked best as a book, which is fine if you’re not claiming to be telling the truth. So, there is this question of the accuracy of some of the reporting, though never of the beauty of it—that’s beyond question.

Weschler: I understand Salman’s misgivings about Kapuściński’s having unquestioningly perpetuated the myth that Haile Selassie died in his sleep. This is a fairly important point because the Selassie death regularly gets raised as an instance of Kapuściński’s, shall we say, looseness with the factual record. Actually, for starters, Kapuściński himself says nothing of the sort. The narrative ends with the aftermath of the September 1974 coup in which the emperor was overthrown and his court scattered (the correct implication being that this and the few months thereafter constituted the period when Kapuściński was himself on the scene in Addis Ababa, reporting). Then follow two press agency clips (no longer in Kapuściński’s voice), one from the Agence France Presse, dated February 7, 1975, detailing the conditions of Selassie’s ongoing life under house arrest, headlined haile selassie still believes he is emperor of ethiopia (which he believes, at least in part, because his guards continue to address him as such); the other a short item from the Ethiopian News Agency (ENA), dated August 28, 1975, simply stating that Haile Selassie had died the previous day of “circulatory failure” (no mention of “in his sleep”).

Now, first of all, the fact that Kapuściński, writing more than two years later in Warsaw, conspicuously relies on these press accounts is as much as to say that he was not there, and that this (unlike the rest of the book) is no longer based on his own on-scene reporting. He is rounding out the story as best he can from a far distance. Second, even years later, after the fall of the Mengistu military regime that had overthrown the emperor, and the subsequent opening of the pertinent files, the exact circumstances of Selassie’s death remained a matter of some dispute. (As late as November 2, 2000, the BBC, reporting on the reburial of the emperor’s remains, has him dying “in mysterious circumstances while in custody.”) This is not to say that, from today’s vantage, the preponderance of evidence refutes the likelihood of Selassie’s having been murdered, possibly in his sleep. It’s just that it’s asking a lot of Kapuściński, in Cold War Warsaw in 1977–78, to have unearthed an account of events that even the BBC was unsure about over twenty years later.

Of course, one can still wonder why, decades later, Kapuściński declined to post some sort of afterword detailing more recent theories as to the emperor’s demise. But here I tend to side with Kapuściński in his declining to do so. His text as presented doesn’t require correction. The text documents a finished body of work as of the date of its publication. There are doubtless all sorts of things that he, like any reporter, could choose to change, or not, in subsequent editions, based on new information, but there is something to be said for respecting the integrity of the text as published. And this seems especially the case with a text such as this one, which is operating (and asking to be read) on so many other levels at the same time.