Friday, March 21, 2008

Books: The Emperor, by Ryszard Kapuściński

I picked up this book after reading about Ryszard Kapuściński somewhere, and deciding that I should be familiar with his work, and then finding out that he had written something on Haile Selassie. A long-time reggae fan, I've always wondered who the hell this Haile Selassie guy is (he's probably the most name-checked figure in all reggae). Unfortunately, while The Emperor gave me quite a good idea of Selassie's governing style (he was the Emperor of Ethiopia until 1974), it did not refer in any way to Jamaica, Rastafarianism, or reggae; in fact, it presented Selassie in a negative enough light to make me wonder why my favorite songs would celebrate him with lyrics like "Hail to the King, Haile Selassie."

Kapuściński's volume is comprised of a well-curated series of interviews he conducted with a number of people who had been part of Selassie's retinue, as servants, ministers, and lackeys. (One testimonial, for example, comes from the man whose job it was to place a pillow under Selassie's feet each time the Emperor sat in a chair (he had short legs, which dangled from his high thrones).) What emerges is a shadowy portrait (if I were to make a movie from this book, Selassie would never be shown in an objectifying light; he would either be constantly in shadow, or, occasionally, he would emanate his own light) of a self-isolating paranoiac who retained power much in the way that Stalin did (rather than killing his enemies, though, Selassie seemed able to achieve the same affect by simply demoting them: either a testimonial to his greatness, or to the absurd poverty of Ethiopia).

Later, I read about Selassie on wikipedia (where I found out that his birth name was Ras Tafari, hence Rastafarianism. . .), and it seemed as though what actions Kapuściński presents as the empty gestures of bad leadership (traveling the world to meet with other leaders, building factories and dams and other signs of industrial progress, erecting palaces in far-flung regions of the desert, all while his people were starving) had paid off rather well; wiki presents him as a good leader who modernized his country and spoke out internationally against colonialism. So. . . who's biased? It seems that Selassie, like Christ, never asked that a religion be started in his name. And yet, he did arrive in Jamaica and see people praising him, and failed to deny his divinity. While that doesn't disclose whether his leadership was good or bad, the fact that he closed Universities (where subversive Western ideals of Democracy were spreading) and squashed a Democratic revolution (as told by Kapuściński, not wiki) is haunting. There's no reason why a leader can't be somewhat good and somewhat bad, or good for awhile, and then bad, but, if I had to choose right now, I would lay my odds on Kapuściński. One man on the ground speaking in real time with people close to the throne must know more than a bunch of wiki drones who weren't there. Although the wiki drones should have read this book. Hmm.

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