In the Court of the Lion of Judah

The Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia, the Lion of Judah

He was short and somewhat frail, yet Haile Selassie managed to reign as Emperor of Ethiopia for some 44 years, from 1930 to 1974, when his government was toppled by a revolution. Although his book about Selassie, entitled The Emperor, has come under fire for certain inaccuracies, Ryszard Kapuściński leaves us an unforgettable portrait which is probably mostly true. Take, for instance, the following excerpt:

His Majesty spent the hour between nine and ten in the morning handing out assignments in the Audience Hall, and thus this time was called the Hour of Assignments. The Emperor would enter the Hall, where a row of waiting dignitaries, nominated for assignment, bowed humbly. His Majesty would take his place on the throne, and when he had seated himself I would slide a pillow under his feet. This had to be done like lightning so as not to leave Our Distinguished Monarch’s legs hanging in the air for even a moment. We all know that His Highness was of small stature. At the same time, the dignity of the Imperial Office required that he be elevated above his subjects, even in a strictly physical sense. Thus the Imperial thrones had long legs and high seats, especially those left by Emperor Menelik, an exceptionally tall man. Therefore a contradiction arose between the necessity of a high throne and the figure of His Venerable Majesty, a contradiction most sensitive and troublesome precisely in the region of the legs, since it is difficult to imagine that an appropriate dignity can be maintained by a person whose legs are dangling in the air like those of a small child. The pillow solved this delicate and all-important conundrum.

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. 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.

Substantially True

Polish Writer Ryszard Kapuściński (1932-2007)

Although he is usually classified as a writer on non-fiction, the late Ryszard Kapuściński has been “outed” by some journalists for embroidering the truth. In this era of fake news and outright official lying, I feel we need to appreciate someone who is 95% true, or even 90% true. Almost no one is 100% true. I keep thinking back to the ancient Greek and Roman historians who put polished speeches into the mouths of Greek heroes such as Pericles and Augustus Caesar. The idea was to give the general idea, and to adjust the truth just enough to show the basics. No matter that the historian spoke more elegantly than Pericles or Augustus ever could. Shall we dump Thucydides, Herodotus, Tacitus, and Livy for such venial sins, which were certainly not considered as sins at the time they were writing?

According to a biography by Artur Domoslawski, friend of Kapuściński, occasionally crossed the boundary between straight reportage and fiction: “Sometimes the literary idea conquered him. In one passage, for example, he writes that the fish in Lake Victoria in Uganda had grown big from feasting on people killed by Idi Amin. It’s a colourful and terrifying metaphor. In fact, the fish got larger after eating smaller fish from the Nile.”

It seems Domoslawski was perhaps less than a real friend of Kapuściński: He also included numerous accounts of the author’s sexual peccadillos and collaborations with Soviet intelligence.

I am reminded of another travel writer whose work I love, Bruce Chatwin, author of In Patagonia and Songlines. Instead of 90% truth, Chatwin aimed at perhaps 70% truth and occasionally fell short of that mark. And there was, with Chatwin, a lot of sex going on with even with his sources. (He died of AIDS in 1989 at the age of 49.) I still classify both authors as non-fiction, even though Domoslawski thinks they should be on the shelf with fiction.

After Domoslawski’s book came out, a bunch of other writers jumped on the topic, including such notable historians as Timothy Garton-Ash. I know that, for many years, Ryszard Kapuściński  has been on the short list to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature. Now that he is dead, he does not qualify. More’s the pity.