The Wife's Tale (2018) is the story of Yetemegnu, an Ethiopian woman who lived from about 1916 to 2013, from feudalism and monarchy, through fascist invasion and occupation, back to monarchy, through revolutions, and into modern times. A child bride, married to an Orthodox Christian cleric, she was repressed for much of her life, but remained strong and smart. After her husband was imprisoned, she petitioned the emperor for his release, or at least a fair trial, and he agreed to hear the case. But her husband died, and she led her family after that, raising the children, and arguing court cases herself to protect their property, and eventually learning to read.
The memoir is written by her granddaughter, a journalist for The Guardian, who had heard many stories told by and about Yetemegnu. It is intensely personal, including details of beatings by her unjustifiably jealous husband, and many conversations with her relatives, and her dreams and religious experiences. It is also extremely immersive in Yetemegnu's way of life, everything from the expectations placed on her, to the food she cooked for her family and for her husband's many guests, to details of clothing and how the household was run.
Through all these personal details, and watching the rise and fall of Yetemegnu's husband, and what happened to some of her children, a vision of Ethiopian history is also revealed. Strict hierarchical traditionalism is combined with the arbitrariness of courtly and churchly intrigues, punctuated by the Italian occupation and conflicts of when cooperating to survive might turn into collaboration, and then the revolutionary periods affect Yetemegnu's family.
Parts of the memoir are a little hard to get through because of the emotions sparked by what is happening, but it's still a very accessible book, told clearly and plainly. This sometimes strict but always loving woman is worth getting to know, through her granddaughter's words.
The Emperor: Downfall of an Autocrat (1978) is not a personal book, though it contains personal perspectives. It is a compilation of interviews with some of the former members of Haile Selassie's court, after he was deposed and they went into hiding. Kapuscinski, a Polish foreign correspondent who'd reported from Ethiopia before, sought out these eyewitnesses and interwove their descriptions and anecdotes, with occasional explanatory bridges of his own writing, into a coherent narrative of what happened leading up to, during, and immediately after Selassie's ouster in 1974 -- as coherent as you can get when courtiers are explaining everything through the lenses of their own perspectives and agendas, anyway.
I was amazed and appalled to read about how the emperor maintained his power throughout most of his reign, until it melted away. He kept his entire court off-balance all the time, raising the status of some and lowering others' each day during the Hour of Assignments, so that the courtiers and ministers had a hard time trying to maintain any momentum, let alone power bases. He also disapproved of any efforts at reforms made by anyone other than himself; apparently, he alone was to be the dispenser of mercy, justice, and any improvements in the people's lives; he alone was to be their father-figure, their savior. He denied reports of mismanagement and waste by his officials, sometimes elevating them to show that they couldn't possibly be guilty (and he couldn't possibly have made mistakes by appointing them); he and his court decried "troublemakers" whenever complaints arose.
The emperor made ambiguous verbal statements, written down by the Minister of the Pen, so that he could claim any unpopular decisions had been misinterpreted. He was a master of evasion, avoiding capture by the Italians before World War II, and surviving the attempted coup by Mengistu in 1960; when the Army encroached on his power, making arrests in his name, he appeared to accept their decisions; when he was finally officially deposed, he said "If the revolution is good for the people, then I am for the revolution."
The interviewees often speculate about the reasons for their emperors' habits and decisions, but they don't know, because he rarely, if ever, trusted anyone enough to reveal his thinking. Some of the interviewees seem to maintain their adoration of the emperor; others use overtly respectful language that yet seems to be incredibly sarcastic, given the ironic juxtapositions with the events being described.
This book has an incredible way with words. I have no idea how true the 1983 English translation of the Polish book (probably mostly translated from Ethiopian originally) is to what those courtiers actually said, but the phrases are often poetic -- conveying mood and mindset with elegance.
"All the people surrounding the Emperor are just like that--on their knees, and with knives."
"In a poor country, money is a wonderful, thick hedge, dazzling and always blooming, which separates you from everything else. Through that hedge you do not see creeping poverty, you do not smell the stench of misery, and you do not hear the voices of the human dregs. But at the same time you know that all of that exists, and you feel proud because of your hedge."
"Yes, looking was a provocation, it was blackmail, and everyone was afraid to lift his eyes, afraid that somewhere--in the air, in a corner, behind an arras, in a crack--he would see a shining eye, like a dagger."
"There was such a fear of the precipice in the Palace that everyone tried to hold on to His Majesty, still not knowing that the whole court--though slowly and with dignity--was sliding toward the edge of the cliff."
"And how can anyone justify not having achievements in today's world? Certainly it was possible to invent, to count things twice, to explain, but then troublemakers would immediately stand up and hurl calumnies, and by that time such indecency and perversity had spread that people would rather believe the troublemakers than the Emperor."
"That's it, my friend--His Venerable Majesty wanted to rule over everything. Even if there was a rebellion, he wanted to rule over the rebellion, to command a mutiny, even if it was directed against his own reign."I do wonder how many of those courtiers surrounding the emperor were out for their own advantage, and how many were just doing the best they could to survive in that court of chaos? It's hard to say, but it's pretty clear that anyone who'd told the emperor he was on the wrong path would have been swept away.
Anyway, I feel lucky that my recreational interests led me to read these two books. The Emperor, despite its specificity of period and place, has some important things to say about autocracy and access to power, and the wise and foolish uses thereof, which are relevant to here and now. The Wife's Tale tells us about a woman whose life was very different from most of ours, but she has a lot to teach anyone about perseverance.
Aside from the life lessons, it's really interesting to steep myself for a little while in another culture. These two books are both great, in very different ways, and I highly recommend them both.