The Emperor's Deathbed: An Exchange
Rushdie, Salman, Weschler, Lawrence, The Virginia Quarterly Review
Weschler: Ryszard Kapuscinski was a master at jousting with the censors, perhaps nowhere more spectacularly than in his seminal masterpiece, The Emperor, published in Warsaw in 1978, which is to say during the last years of Polish party leader Edward Gierek's stupendously corrupt and incompetent regime. Although Kapuscinski's eyewitness account of the collapse, earlier that decade, of the stupendously corrupt and incompetent Ethiopian regime of Haile Selassie couldn't have helped but set off allegorical alarms all up and down the reading food-chain there in Warsaw, it had clearly placed the regime's censors in an exquisite quandary: Haile Selassie had been a capitalist-supported pig through and through, eventually overthrown by insurgent forces allied to the Warsaw Pact, and one couldn't very well complain about or condemn that, such that the splendid experience of reading Kapuscinski's account, as it dribbled out in installments that late-Gierek summer, was rendered all the more thrilling for the residents of Warsaw as they simultaneously got to imagine the knots of compunction and misgiving, the veritable conniptions, the text must earlier have been giving the censors to whom it had first been presented. Nor had Kapuscinski himself been shy in anticipating those torments in the text itself. Thus, for example, at one point he has one of his interlocutors explaining, "His Highness worked on the assumption that even the most loyal press should not be given in abundance.... For even what is written loyally can be read disloyally." A virtual map of misreading, that-a veritable instruction manual in how to read what followed.
Kapuscinski's reportages always presented themselves in four aspects. (I have written about all this at considerably greater length in my essay "Allegories of Eastern Europe.") First, of course, as superb reportage, pure and simple, of the situation that they purport to recount (or rather perhaps a kind of rhapsodic looking back upon a situation, now years past, which at the time could only be recounted, press-agency style, in broadest strokes and at a headline clip; a looking back that at long last allowed the inclusion of details-of smells, sounds, sensations, doubts, and hesitations-that the press of time and event had earlier precluded). But then, second, as a general allegory, for The Emperor reads as the nightmare prospect eternally dogging Machiavelli's Prince, a spellbinding anatomization of every sort of court-life and of the way that authority, no matter how brilliantly accrued, over time relentlessly bleeds away. And, third, as a conspicuous allegory of the specific situation back in Poland (the particulars of Selassie's downfall, for example, as an eerie premonition of the coming fate of Gierek's regime, which would fall only two years later with the upsurge of Solidarity, in whose ensuing wake Polish stages would suddenly blossom with no fewer than seventeen separate adaptations of Kapuscinski's Ethiopian saga). And then, finally, these books read as literature, and of the highest order, waiting to be slotted there on the bookshelf, among Borges and García Márquez and Bruno Schulz, and of course right there next to Kafka.
Rushdie: What brilliance, what brilliance was there. And what a strong and profoundly seeing and antic imagination.
I first heard of Ryszard Kapuscinski in 1983. My novel Midnight's Children had just been published in paperback by Sonny Mehta, who was at that time running Picador in England. I remember going to Sonny's office, and he had this book on his desk. He said, "This is the best book I think I've ever read." I said, "Oh yeah?" He said, "You must take this book away and read it today, and you will agree with me." I said, "What's it called?" He said, "It's called The Emperor, and it's about Haile Selassie, and it's written by this Polish writer." I took it away and read it that night and was obliged to call Sonny the next day and tell him that he was right. …