The great Polish writer Ryszard Kapuscinski died yesterday. Although most of the notices have referred to him as a journalist or reporter, his works will endure far longer than the copy handed in by most scribblers. Kapuscinski was really an ironic recorder who was drawn to wars, revolutions, and general weirdness.
The Emperor, his hilarious and absorbing portrait of the diminutive Emperor of Ethiopia, Haile Selassie, must rank as one of the most accurate portraits of the absurdities of court life ever.
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 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.
Kapuscinski’s descriptions of apparently unique situations often cast light on broader political truths. After all, what are the flunkies that traipse the corridors of international organizations (like me), but glorified pillow bearers, each with our own extremely useful, but essentially worthless, “expert knowledge”?
Nor were the competing circles of power in Selassie’s court much different from those in other dictatorial regimes.
I’ll come right out and say it: the King of Kings preferred bad ministers. And the King of Kings preferred them because he liked to appear in a favored light by contrast. How could he show himself favorably if he were surrounded by good ministers? The people would be disoriented. Where would they look for help? On whose wisdom and kindness would they depend? Everyone would have been good and wise. What disorder would have broken out in the Empire then! Instead of one sun, fifty would be shining, and everyone would pay homage to a privately chosen planet. No, my dear friend, you cannot expose the people to such disastrous freedom. There can be only one sun. Such is the order of nature, and everything else is a heresy. But you can sure that His Majesty shined by contrast. How imposingly and kindly he shone, so that our people had no doubts about who was the sun and who the shadow.
And here is a homage to “the international life” that could have been written for our own pocket-sized leader.
… these visits were a break, a chance for him to rest and catch his breath. At least for a while he didn’t have to read the informants’ reports, to listen to the roar of crowds and the sound of police gunfire, to look into the faces of toadies and flatterers. He didn’t, at least for one day, have to solve the insoluble, repair the irreparable, or cure the incurable. In those foreign countries, no one conspired against him, no one was sharpening the knife, no one needed to be hanged. He could go to bed calmly, sure that he would wake up alive. He could sit down with a friendly president and have a relaxing talk, man to man. Yes, my friend, allow me once more to commend the international life. Without it, who could ever bear the burden of governing these days?
Frayed just looked over my shoulder and asked why my quoted passages were so long. She's right, theyare too lengthy for a post but I just can’t bring myself to cut them. Kapuscinski’s gentle mockery is just so spot on, his eye for the telling detail so acute, and his authorial voice so compelling that if I didn’t have to go to work tomorrow I could easily type out the whole book.
Unfortunately I do have to trudge in tomorrow, so I’ll end with a plug for Kapuscinski’s other famous book, Shah of Shahs.
To my way of thinking the Iranian revolution of 1979 was the most far-reaching political event of my lifetime and Kapuscinski brings it to life in the most wonderfully poetic way. Here is his description of the enduring appeal of a famous dissident under the Shah.
Yes, of course--you can record. Today he is no longer a prohibited subject. Before, he was. Do you know that for twenty-five years it was forbidden to utter his name in public. That the name “Mossadegh” was purged from all books, all history texts? And just imagine: Today, young people, who, it was assumed, should know nothing about him, go to their deaths carrying his portrait. There you have the best proof of what such expunging and rewriting history leads to. But the Shah didn’t understand that. He did not understand that even though you can destroy a man, destroying him does not make him cease to exist. On the contrary, if I can put it this way, he begins to exist all the more. These are paradoxes no tyrant can deal with. The scythe swings, and at once the grass starts to grow back. Cut again and the grass grows faster than ever. A very comforting law of nature.
There is stuff this good on almost every page. Any historian seeking answers to the way cultures in Africa and the Middle East were buckled and malformed by weight of the 20th century surely has to turn to Kapuscinski. He was one of the century’s very greatest chroniclers.
Postscript. After writing this post I took down Kapuscinski's The Shadow of the Sun and came across this nice tribute from Geoff Dyer, himself no mean writer, in the Guardian:
"Suppose we were to launch a spacecraft with the intention of establishing literary contact with the residents of some remote part of the galaxy. If we had room for only one contemporary writer, whom would we send? I'd vote for Ryszard Kapuscinski, because he has given the truest, least partial, most comprehensive account of what life is like on our planet."
For a writer in one of Europe's less well known languages to be so highly regarded is a mark of his genius.