Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Funny, you can't hide your lion eyes: When Detectives Beyond Borders met Haile Selassie

Today I cross a border that another border-crosser set up. That crosser recommended Ryszard Kapuściński's The Soccer War in a comment on my recent post about Manuel Vázquez Montalbán's novel Off Side.

I found Kapuściński's The Emperor: Downfall of an Autocrat instead. While I can't yet comment on the various controversies surrounding Kapuściński's alleged collaboration with Poland's Communist government or his crossing lines between fiction and non-fiction, I smiled when I read this account of the book's subject, Haile Selassie of Ethiopia, passing among petitioners in one of his twenty-seven cars:
“You see, it was known that His Majesty, not using his powers of reading and writing, had a phenomenally developed visual memory. On this gift of nature the owner of the face over which the Imperial gaze had passed could build his hopes. Because he could already count on some passing trace, even an indistinct trace, having imprinted itself in His Highness's memory. Now, you had to maneuver in the crowd with such perseverance and determination, so squeeze yourself and worm through, so push, so jostle, so position your face, dispose and manipulate it in such a way, that the Emperor’s glance, unwillingly and unknowingly, would notice, notice, notice. Then you waited for the moment to come when the Emperor would think, `Just a minute. I know that face, but I don’t know the name.'”
I  smiled because I was part of the crowd that surrounded Haile Selassie upon his visit to Montreal's Expo 67 world's fair. My memory tells me that he was a little guy, that his car was white, that the emperor wasn't smiling, that he sat in the left rear passenger seat, and that I was close enough to the car that I could look right down on him. (Those were different times.)

If Kapuscinski's interlocutor in The Emperor was right, I could have hit His Imperial Majesty Haile Selassie I, Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah, King of Kings (Emperor) of Ethiopia, Elect of God up for a few favors before he was deposed in 1974. But would he really have remembered my youthful face? Haile unlikely, I say.
***
In re Kapuscinski's supposed embellishment of facts, I learned from the Wikipedia article about Kapuscinski that he wrote gawęda szlachecka,
“a traditional Polish anecdotal narrative exercised throughout the literary history of the 17th to the 19th centuries by segments of lower nobility and sometimes referred to by the irreverent as the art of elegant mendacity.”
I must pursue this attractive genre further, maybe even write some gawęda szlachecka beyond borders of my own.

© Peter Rozovsky 2012

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21 Comments:

Anonymous solo said...

My memory tells me that he was a little guy, that his car was white, that the emperor wasn't smiling, that he sat in the left rear passenger seat, and that I was close enough to the car that I could look right down on him. (Those were different times.)

It's a long time since I read that book, Peter, but the scene that sticks in my head is the final one, where the emperor, who has taken his ousting fairly well up to that point, is finally outraged to find he is to be driven away from the palace — in a Volkswagen. Ah, the indignity.

Shah of Shahs is pretty good as well. Kapuściński may not be reliable but he is entertaining.

July 25, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

It's a fabulously entertaining book and if, as some commentators seem to think, Haile Selassie's court is an allegory for Communist Poland, all allegories should be so fantastical and so much fun.

July 25, 2012  
Anonymous proper manky said...

I haven't read this one, though I may now given your recommendation. I did also read Shah of Shahs and Shadow of the Sun, the latter of which I liked a lot as well (esp. the story of the small beetle which the Tuareg call Ngubi and which toils to produce sweat in order to drink it to survive). My views on his apparent lack of journalistic integrity and communist collaboration are mixed. I realize he has been heavily criticized for both in his home country as well as elsewhere, but I think it's important to realize that in much of Europe there's a slightly different expectation with respect to journalism. There's more emphasis on the role of the reader, as opposed to the writer or the journalist, and there's much less of an expectation of the "objective journalist." It's the reader, who has to construct a view of reality from multiple opinions and to remain skeptical of potential biases. Furthermore, I think RK viewed himself more as a travel writer or even ethnographer than as a journalist. I always found much of his work wildly entertaining and I don't think it's far-fetched to realize that his very style of writing signals, from the first paragraph of every book or article, that the content needs to be read with a grain of salt. So, the fact that he embellished his stories has never especially surprised or disappointed me. Also, as someone who lived for a while in Eastern Europe at the time of the fraying of the Iron Curtain, I had many encounters with writers, artists, actors, etc. that made it very clear that expressing yourself in ways that tackled reality head on was fraught with dangers. The history of samizdat is full of examples of allegories, metaphors, and wild imaginations that served as disguises for true intentions and meanings. RK's affinity for an Eastern European form of 'magical realism' is very intuitive to me.

As for the allegations, apparently now well-established, of RK's collaboration with the communist party, they are of course bothersome to me and by and large inexcusable. However, I do tend to think of RK as a brilliant and slightly nutty, if not tragic, character, who did his thing in however odd ways, compromised himself where he thought he needed in order to maximize his opportunities for pretty wild adventures (e.g. be permitted to travel). Reading about those adventures, however fictitious, has always given me a special thrill. Then again, I wasn't one of those he reported on.

July 25, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

PM, the Wikipedia article did mention that his posthumous reputation in Poland has been largely negative. I learned also that RK's journalistic work ceased in 1981. So I could not blame Poles for being wary.

I don't know how The Emperor compares to the rest of his work, but I don't read it as an attempt at straightforward journalism, and I find it hard to understand how anyone could read it that way. I will bear that notion of gawęda szlachecka in mind as I read. I'm also reminded of Joseph Brodsky, who began one of his essays with a warning to the reader not to believe anything that followed.

Where in Eastern Europe did you live?

July 25, 2012  
Anonymous proper manky said...

In Prague, 82-83.

July 25, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Hmm, I've picked around the edges of that part of the world: Vienna well before the Iron Curtain came down, Berlin well after. If Berlin is any guide to the weirdness the Iron Curtain visited on the countries behind it ...

July 25, 2012  
Blogger seana said...

I haven't read Kapuscinski's work, though I have heard him both lauded and criticized.I'm fascinated by this gawęda szlachecka tradition, though.

Although you'd think his fellow Poles would understand the context he was writing in in that case.

July 25, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Seana, my guess is that fellow Poles were likelier to have been upset with his collaboration with the Communist Party than with any breach of journalistic ethics. I mentioned above that he stopped his work as a foreign correspondent in 1981, a momentous year in Polish history. But yes, this book is wonderful entertaining.

This may be unrelated, but the most entertaining, fantastical character in Jason Goodwin's series of Istanbul mysteries is Palewski, Polands's ambassador to the Sublime Porte -- at a time when Poland had ceased to exist as a country.


I think RK could be my gateway to a wealth of Polish writing that I had never known about before.

July 25, 2012  
Blogger seana said...

I have heard good things about Soccer Wars, and that's from a non-sports fan.

July 26, 2012  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Peter

Is in that book or is somewhere else that I read that the murdered emperor's body was deliberately buried under the latrines...

July 26, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

That is a good sign, indeed. I'd like to browse that book and also Eduardo Galeano's soccer book Both were recommended to me in comments on my Manuel Vazquez Montalban post.

July 26, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Adrian. I have not finished the book, but I think not. Haile Selassie is escorted form power in a Volkswagen, which is not as ignominious as being buried under a latrine. I mean, I've been in Volkswagens.

July 26, 2012  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Peter

I must have read that in a Hitchens essay or something, because the only other thing I've read about Ethiopia is Evelyn Waugh's Scoop.

The NYT has a brief mention of the latrine story here: http://www.nytimes.com/1992/03/01/world/ethiopians-celebrate-a-mass-for-exhumed-haile-selassie.html

July 26, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I think this book may use a bit from Waugh either as an epigraph or in its introduction. I'll be able to tell of RK takes the story to the emperor's ignominious burial. A number of accounts of the book mention the account of His Highness being displeased with the transportation from the palace. None has mentioned the burial, however.

July 26, 2012  
Anonymous Montgomery said...

The problem with Kapuscinski's writings is not so much a tendency towards fabulism as a habit of lying about where he went and what he saw and did.

He portrayed himself as the foreign correspondent who went to places other journalists avoided. And if other journalists did go to these troublespots, well he stayed on after they had fled.

And it was all rubbish. Reputable journalists who covered Africa at the time have no recollection of seeing the Polish poseur.

He was a fraud, plain and simple.

July 26, 2012  
Anonymous Proper Manky said...

Peter, I know next to nothing about Polish literature but one writer I do know very well is Stanislaw Lem. He's of course mostly known as a science fiction writer but wrote a few 'mysteries" as well. Not only did he write the detective novel The Chain of Chance, which you mentioned before, but also one called The Investigation. (FWIW, the other one I have read sporadically is Czeslaw Milosz, and then only his poetry.)

July 26, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Montgomery, maybe he was just better off as a writer of travel tales than a journalist. The Wikipedia entry about him quotes the Economist to the effect that:

"[Kapuściński] creates an Africa of his own. It is a fascinating place. Whether it ever existed as he tells it is another matter altogether."

My only experence with Kapuściński is The Emperor, which you know I'm enjoying. How anyone could regard that book as reportage, or journalism, however, is beyond me.

July 26, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

PM, the one I have read before, and only sporadically, is Milosz, and only his essays.

I don't remember having mentioned The Chain of Chance or, indeed, having known that Lem wrote anything but science fiction.

July 26, 2012  
Anonymous proper manky said...

Re: Lem, see: http://detectivesbeyondborders.blogspot.com/2009/07/sci-fi-and-crime-whats-connection.html

Also, I inexcusably forgot to include in the list above Marek Krajewski.

July 26, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks. I'm curious to investigate Lem's mysteries.

July 26, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Blimey, I had forgotten that old comment from the erudite B.V. Lawson. Thanks.

July 27, 2012  

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