Kapuscinski: disgraced or defamed?

Can it be true?

Questions about the reliability of KapuÅ›ciÅ„ski’s reportage begin with The Emperor. His informants here are mainly former Ethiopian court servants labouring under anonymising initials, making them sound curiously like characters in an eighteenth-century English novel. Only one of those who assisted him is given a full name (that, we are told, is because he is safely dead), yet the power of the book derives to a large extent from the fact that the story is told almost entirely through the transcribed speech of these unnamed witnesses. Their antiquated cadences have a mesmeric quality. With courtly unctuousness they speak of “His Venerable Majesty”, “His Most Virtuous Highness”, “His Benevolent Majesty, “His Sublime Majesty”, “His Charitable Majesty”, “His Exalted Majesty”, “His Indefatigable Majesty”, “His Masterful Highness”, “Our Omnipotent Ruler”.

It is a subtle piece of reportorial rhetoric, yet native speakers of Amharic say that these honorifics correspond to no known expressions in their language. In particular, they say, they could not occur in the formal registers of speech that were employed at the court, where there were only one or two acceptable forms of address for the Emperor. So it seems these resonant phrases cannot have been spoken as transcribed. Some of the ceremonial titles that Kapuściński gives his sources are invented too. In the absence of proper names these inventions may be held to cast further doubt on the actual existence of these informants. What Kapuściński and his unnamed translators created in The Emperor was a brilliant device, Chinese whispers rather than transcription, an imaginary archaic language, with touches of comic opera, one that bespeaks homage while conveying subversion. It falls short, though, of both scholarly and journalistic standards of verity, even of verisimilitude.

That is a 2001 article by John Ryle in the Times Literary supplement, from reader Peter. It hardly ends there.

I am diminished.