Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Calisthenics while his empire crumbles.... (Books - The Emperor by Ryszard Kapuscinski)

The Emperor (1978) was Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski's first book. It is a distinctive blend of political writing, razor sharp psychological portraiture via oral history, and prose that achieves lyricism. It's three brief sections describe the absurd class structure of Ethiopia during the reign of Haile Selassie, Emperor from the 1930s to the 1970s, the foment of rebellion against it, and its eventual downfall, not exactly the expected forum for poetical insight.

Kapuscinski presents his lyricized version of memories of Selassie's courtiers, servants, and associates, each identified by their initials only, alternating with brief interpretive commentary. What is remarkable about the stories shared in this concise history is the lengths the courtiers went to assure themselves of the King's irrefutable superiority to themselves. The class hierarchy they describe is rococo in its absurdity - it rivals that of the Russian pre-revolutionary civil service parodied by Gogol. Their titles: 'keeper of the third door:'
When His Most Exalted Majesty left the room, it was I who opened the door. It was an art to open the door at the right moment, the exact instant. To open the door too early would have been reprehensible, as if I were hurrying the Emperor out. If I opened it too late, on the other hand, His Sublime Highness would have to slow down, or perhaps even stop, which would detract from his lordly dignity, a dignity that meant getting around without collisions or obstacles.
the 'pillow bearer:'
I was His Most Virtuous Highness's pillow bearer for twenty-six years. I accompanied His Majesty on travels all around the world, and to tell the truth - I say it with pride - His Majesty could not go anywhere without me, since his dignity required that he always take his place on a throne and he could not sit on a throne without a pillow, and I was the pillow bearer. I had mastered the special protocol of this specialty, and even possessed an extremely useful, expert knowledge: the height of various thrones. This allowed me quickly to choose a pillow of just the right size, so that a shocking ill fit, allowing a gap to appear between the pillow and the Emperor's shoes, would not occur. In my storeroom I had fifty-two pillows of various sizes, thicknesses, materials, and colors. I personally monitored their storage, constantly, so that fleas - the plague of our country - would not breed there, since the consequences of any such oversight could lead to a very unpleasant scandal.
Isn't this like something straight out of satirical science fiction? 'The Minister of the Pen' (necessary as 'his highness' never read or wrote). Evidently, when the king traveled, he hand-selected which of his court members would accompany him. There would be bitter in-fighting for such privilege and each person who accompanied him would know his number in the hierarchy, so that who was above and who below whom would be crystal clear. As rebellion encroaches this elaborately structured society is slow to crumble, so weighed down by greed, ambition, and a simple inability to re-conceive an idea in which they are secure, boggles the mind.

Particularly striking is the emperor's own reaction to the opposition. During the period in which his palace was occupied by invading forces, the emperor employed Swedish physicians who scheduled calisthenics to counteract the 'sluggishness' experienced by the remaining court members. was the desire of His Majesty and the Crown Council, just then, that all the Palace people should take very good care of their health, take full advantage of the blessings of nature, rest as much as necessary in comfort and affluence, breathe good... air. His Benevolent Majesty forbade any economizing in this regard, saying often that the life of the Palace people is the greatest treasure of the Empire and the most valuable resource of the monarchy.
It is notable that even members of the rebellion found themselves consulting the emperor on the steps they were taking as they dismantled his regime. As usual, Kapuscinski brings a relatively recent episode of political oppression strikingly to life. I have yet to read a book of his that wasn't a stunner.


Barbara said...

Another glimpse into "The Emperor" is provided in "Cutting for Stone" by Abraham Verghese which is set in Ethiopia during Selassie's reign. You may find interesting.

Ted said...

Hi Barbara - I had heard from quite a number of people about that book but, no, I hadn't realized it was on the same subject. It would be interesting to read another take on the same person and era.