Book Review: THE EMPEROR by Ryszard Kapucinski

TheEmperorThe Emperor is so powerful that when he elevates someone to a new position, he changes their body language completely:

First, the whole figure of a man changes. What had been slender and trim-waisted now starts to become a square silhouette. It is a massive and solemn square: a symbol of the solemnity and weight of power. We can already see that this is not just anybody’s silhouette, but that of visible dignity and responsibility. A slowing down of movements accompanies this change in the figure. A man who has been singled out by His Distinguished Majesty will not jump, run, frolic, or cut a caper. No. His step is solemn: he sets his feet firmly on the ground, bending his body slightly forward to show his determination to push through adversity, ordering precisely the movement of his hands so as to avoid nervous disorganized gesticulation. Furthermore, the facial features become solemn, almost stiffened, more worried and closed, but still capable of a momentary change to optimism or approval. (34)

The man becomes old, he becomes slow, he becomes massive and solemn as he attempt to stifle his quirks to fit into that stagnant court atmosphere. Power sits heavily on his shoulders. All of these observations become ironic when one realizes, by reading through Kapucinski’s piece, that in fact the ministers spend most of their time not doing their jobs, but hanging around court just to catch the Emperor’s eye to indicate their “unshakable loyalty”. (50) And that, moreover, the Emperor doesn’t like his ministers to be good at their jobs, so that he “shined by contrast”. (33)

Kapucinski doesn’t need to write a voluminous tome in order to convey what life was like under the repressive rule of Emperor Haile Selassie.  Instead he chooses a few details that stick out in the mind: such as the specific way in which a new minister’s body posture changes upon his promotion to power. There is something about each of these images that causes the reader to pause and think, and remember them afterwards. Five Stars.

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