Often a small detail can be as telling as a shelfload of description.


I have a horror of generalisations


wrote Henry James. Abstraction is the characteristic weakness of the modern mind and nowadays the receiver of information ─ that is, each of us ─ is habitually averse to high level generalisations. A small personal detail, a look of surprise or its reverse, an absence of surprise where surprise would be expected, can be more revealing than a torrent of speech; this is why the modern voter or blogger is influenced so much by short videos of politicians seen on YouTube.


Not all journalists yet seem to understand this, since in the heart of every journalist lurks an editor. Even Ryszard Kapuściński, in his classic short study of the disintegration of the ‘Empire’ of Haile Selassie, The Emperor, at length, towards the end of this book of only 164 pages in the Penguin edition, editorialises and to some extent reveals his hand as regards the rights and wrongs of feudalism. Jonathan Dimbleby had visited Ethiopia and unexpectedly produced a short film, Ethiopia: The Unknown Famine, which was shown on the BBC in 1973. Kapuściński, with his characteristically Polish interest in autocracy, set about interviewing former courtiers and inhabitants of ‘the Palace’ after Selassie’s fall a year later.Haile Selassie - smaller


Many had been shot by the incipient Marxist regime of Major Mengistu; others were untraceable; all were frightened. Kapuściński’s book was published in 1978 at around the time another autocracy was crumbling, this time the Peacock Throne. Kapuściński would go on to write another book about another King of Kings. But by this time we have grasped the essentially naïve and simple-hearted nature of the feudal autocracy, in which rumours and denunciations circle like doves, factions struggle, loyalty is prized above ability and condescending bribes are received as grateful tokens without in the least casting a shadow on any conscience.


Even with more liberal applications of torture and emptier pretensions of dynasty, the story of the fall of the Shah of Iran is essentially the same, the demise as ultimately predictable within the fashionable Marxist terms of the 1970s, even though a different kind of totalitarianism ensued. In fact, Kapuściński’s earlier tale of gradual disintegration, with its sense of inevitability, brings to mind The Last Emperor of China, albeit with the dimension of a Palace imbued by Kafka with inescapable infinitude.


But I have already added vastly more editorial content than Kapuściński allows himself. He interviews palace servants and allows them to speak in their own words, though it is inconceivable that they should have expressed themselves quite as artfully as Kapuściński would have us believe. The author does a great deal of artful listening and, of course, there is a hinterland ─ a land of hints ─ between journalism and literature which permits the role of the imagination to be expanded beyond the limits tolerated by editors.


The majestic presence here is that of VS Naipaul, for instance in his Among The Believers of 1981, which describes the author’s encounters in revolutionary Iran. Kapuściński does not quite approach this degree of impartiality ─ the three slender sections are larded with epigraphs and there are some obviously authorial italicised interludes ─ but he works to a higher tolerance of economy. There is virtually no analysis, and such historical analysis as he might have added in 1978 would, today, be as outdated as most of the other peri-Marxist discourses of that day and age.


What Kapuściński does achieve is timelessness. He allows the deepest, most heartfelt beliefs of devoted servants of the Most Extraordinary Monarch to be expressed in full ease, allowing us valuable insights into traditional customs and attitudes which prevailed until quite modern times, when those who comment and describe have been quite suddenly afflicted with amnesia.


While the Emperor is away on a visit,


The Palace servants did their laundry and strung their wash on clotheslines, the Palace children grazed their goats on the lawns, the masters of ceremony hung out in local bars, the guards would chain the gates shut and sleep under the trees.[1]


Eventually the cows of peasants would invade the Palace lawns on a more permanent basis; but Kapuściński treasures these revealing details for what they tell us about the cumbersome, maladroit and financially impenetrable ways of an ancient empire.


I am not convinced that Selassie was actually literate. There are reports that in the last few months of his life, when he was in captivity, he read books incessantly; but this is at variance with numerous reports of his magnanimous memory and his consistent aversion, throughout his reign, for all forms of reading and writing. He governed by conversations conducted in whispers.


It is hardly to be doubted, as Ascherson notes in his Introduction, that Kapuściński has


“enhanced” his notes in a creative way … [to produce] a selective distilling of words and events into literature.


The purity of the reporting makes this a work of literature. Indeed many more literary works are far less chaste in terms of the analytic scope they allow themselves. What is to be doubted still less is that the result is a masterpiece.


[1] Ryszard Kapuściński, The Emperor: downfall of an autocrat; tr. from the Polish by WR Brand and K Mroczkowska-Brand, with an Introduction by Neal Ascherson. Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1983-2006, p. 43.