King of Kings – Asfra-Wossen Asserate

Ras Tafari ruled Ethiopia as regent starting in 1916 and then under the regnal name Haile Selassie when he ascended to the position of Negusa Negast in 1930. His reign lasted until 1974 when the Derg, a council of military officers propelled by famine, military frustrations, and student protests ended the monarchy. This long reign—too long, according to the author—brought about remarkable change in Ethiopia, and Africa more broadly, but those changes quickly left the country behind. Yet, according to King of Kings, the many virtues of Haile Selassie’s rule only became evident in the bloody years of dictatorship, civil war, and now apartheid-esque federation that followed his death.

Descendants of the “House of David” were said to have ruled Ethiopia for three thousand years, but the political landscape of the country into which Ras Tafari was born in 1892 was a patchwork of semi-independent kingdoms all of which traced their descent from Solomon through the Queen of Sheba, with one of those ascending to the position of Negusa Negast. (The way tradition is presented by Asserate, this loose confederacy is actually a precondition of having a a singular Negusa Negast, since without kings underneath him, how could there be a king of kings?) The supreme leadership in Ethiopia was therefore not hereditary, but determined by political alliances, force of personality, and, importantly, the capabilities of each king’s personal army. Ras Tafari was born into a princely family and his father won renown for his role in the Battle of Adwa in 1896, but there were more powerful contenders in 1916 when a regent was chosen for the Empress Zauditu, the daughter of the former emperor Menelik. Ras Tafari was likely chosen because he was not a threat, either in terms of his land holdings or in terms of his physical build. However, his rivals clearly did not count on the young man’s political acumen, and he proceeded to rule the country for nearly six decades.

The Haile Selassie presented by Asfra-Wossen Asserate (whose grandfather was a cousin of H.S.), is a man of contradictions. For instance, he was liberal reformer determined to modernize the country in terms of schools, hospitals, and industry, one who introduced the first two constitutions to Ethiopia, who brought the country into the League of Nations, decried European colonization of Africa, tolerated religious differences, and help found the Organization of African unity. Yet, he used the constitution to centralize power in the absolutist monarchy, firmly believed that he was “The Elect of God,” a title he enshrined in the constitution. By this account, Haile Selassie was the best of paternalistic rulers: he was fair and just, generous with his people, including that he distributed money liberally, paid for students to study outside the country and guaranteed them jobs upon return, and lived frugally himself—-he even accepted the final coup without brutal crackdown. But he also resisted endowing representational bodies with any actual power and became increasingly paranoid about delegating power at all after an attempted coup in 1960 that his oldest son cooperated with. Simultaneously progressive and regressive, Haile Selassie believed himself to be the country and, for a time, he was.

The picture presented here is that Ethiopia was rent apart by two divergent forces, liberalism and conservatism, that, for a time, were successfully united in the person of Haile Selassie to allow modernization. The crisis that precipitated Ras Tafari’s rise to the regency exemplifies these tensions. His cousin, Lij Iyasu, who shared some of the same liberal tendencies (though they evidently hated one another), was designated (though never crowned) emperor of Ethiopia. The monarch was supposed to be chosen by God, but one of the requirements was that he had to belong to the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, which, in turn, supported the institution of the monarchy. Lij Iyasu was accused, libelously, of converting to Islam, probably because he endorsed laws upholding some version of freedom of religion. The deeply conservative kings and princes used this as an opportunity to supplant him and raise a man they thought would be more malleable. Of course, they succeeded in empowering a man whose political acumen was greater than his cousin and was able to push a liberal modernizing program in a deeply conservative way.

Asfa-Wossen Asserate suggests that a more flexible monarch and possible a younger one who was willing to accept a constitutional monarchy would have led Ethiopia in a radically different direction. He describes the final coup as taking place slowly over a matter of months where the opposition groups maintained a great deal of reverence for the monarchy, but the monarchy did not change and when they made their first slow attempt on the palace, the whole monarchic system fell apart without resistance and without any popular support.

I went into this book knowing next to nothing about Ethiopia. I can locate it on a map, don’t like their coffee, and a scattered handful of facts like the Italian use of chemical weapons there in the 1930s, but that is it. I came out of King of Kings knowing a little bit more about Ethiopia and a lot more about Haile Selassie. Asfa-Wossen Asserate is at his best when he is teasing out the intrigues within the highest echelon of Ethiopian society, including the royal families, the major players within the army, and the civil service that came into being. In particularly, he does a nice job of charting H.S.’s rise to power and how he managed to position Ethiopia within a radically changing world of colonialism and the early Cold War. However, the accounts of revolts and foreign invasions do not provide a good sense of space and the maps are of limited help. Particularly, I wanted to know more about the regional conflicts within Ethiopia and how these issues contributed to Haile Selassie first gaining and then losing support. As it stands, when someone disappoints H.S., they are dispatched from Addis Ababa to the outer reaches of the Empire and largely cease to matter. These frequently are issues with biography, but my problem with it here was that Asfa-Wossen Asserate had a tendency to overuse shorthands like “student protests” without offering any actual details about the movements.

At times the writing can be a little bit casual and forty page chapters without any sort of section break made King of Kings difficult to read at times. Still, Haile Selassie jumps out of these pages as a remarkable individual who helped guide his country through great upheaval.

Conquered City – Victor Serge

Peter is the model and precursor of the Revolution. Remember this: “Constraint makes all things happen.” He founded industries, ministries, an army, a fleet, a capital, customs, by means of edicts and executions. He gave the order to cut off the beards, to dress European-style, to open this window on Europe in the Ingrian swamps. The earth was bare, but he said, “Here will rise a city.” He caned his courtiers, drank like a trooper, and ended his life full of suspicion, doubt, and anguish, smelling treason everywhere (and it was everywhere, like today), trusting no one but his grand inquisitor, thinking even of striking the Empress. And he was right. he left a country depopulated in places, bleeding and moaning under the effort, but St. Petersburg was built! And he is still the Great, the greatest, because he hounded the old Russian, even his own son, because he wrenched this ignorant, passive, bloated old country around toward the future the way you pull up a restive horse with bit and spurs. I hear an echo of his edicts in today’s decrees. All this can even be expressed in Marxist terms: the rise of the new classes.

Zvereva took this blow without batting an eye. She knew you had to swallow many affronts before being able to inflict them in turn.

I know that the gallows has a way of making quite suitable heroes out of rather insipid spawn.

When spring comes to a shattered and starving city full of sullen, terrified, and defeated people, young lovers still walk along the river, holding hands and kissing beneath green trees. Amid Conquered City‘s grueling narrative about the defense of St. Petersburg 1919-1920 that unfolds over the course of a year, this is a placid moment. These handful of pages are reminiscent of Orwell’s “Some Thoughts on the Common Toad,” which is a reflection on the resilience of nature in London, 1940, but unlike Orwell’s exhortation to enjoy the turning of the seasons, Serge plunges his city back into war. Even in this rare moment of human tenderness, bitterness and jealousy infect the scene. Winter comes again.

Victor Serge lived an interesting life–born in Belgium to Russian revolutionary exiles, he participated in revolutionary movements across Europe, including in St. Petersburg in 1919, and was frequently imprisoned for his activities. He also opposed the rise of Stalin and went again into exiles for that stance, eventually dying in Mexico where he received asylum. Originally published in French, Conquered City is a novelization of his time in St. Petersburg, defending the conquered city of the Czars against the counter-revolutionary White army.

Each chapter of Conquered City is a vignette of the siege, each one moving forward in time, sometimes just a few minutes, sometimes a few months. To the extent that there is an overarching plot to the novel, it is an ongoing effort on the part of the authorities on the one hand to encourage unfed and unrewarded workers to keep working and fighting and, on the other, their repeated sweeps of the city to uncover subversive or treasonous plots. Unlike accounts of the revolutionary movements in, for instance, Spain, where the despair is underpinned by determination, Serge shows the workers despondent and the exhortations of the leaders successful, but hollow. However, while this persistent concern is important in the depiction of the siege, the other arm of the narrative, the tracking down and eliminating opponents is the plot that actually keeps the story pushing forward.

At the outset of the story, there are individuals who do not necessarily support the revolution, including the Professor Lytaev, but there is no evidence of plots everywhere. Nevertheless the leadership is convinced that they exist; the lower-ranked comrades are less certain that there are outside conspirators, but they are going to scrutinize their colleagues for weaknesses. Perhaps they are traitors, but perhaps they have just left themselves vulnerable to be torn down for the gain of others. The narrative is relentless and the characters opportunistic and petty, and Serge demonstrates the stratification of resources—who gets to have clean undergarments, for instance—in a city where the palaces of the Czars have been divided up into ministerial offices.

I am light on both plot and characters because Conquered City, while offering some specifics, is more impressionistic, rather like The Case of Comrade Tulayev, which follows the unfolding of a Stalinist era purge. While Richard Greeman, the translator of this edition, describes Conquered City as part of a “cycle of revolution” and places Tulayev with a later “cycle of resistance,” the characterization is influenced by the topic rather than the message. Serge may be accurately portraying the vicious infighting in St. Petersburg in 1919, but the portrayal of a bittersweet victory seems tinged by the Stalinist era, perhaps because it was written while Serge wrote it while imprisoned in the Soviet Union in 1930/1.

In sum, Conquered City was an intellectually interesting novel that had its moments, but I did not find it as moving as The Case of Comrade Tulayev. It is certainly part of an extensive collection of revolutionary and oppressionistic literature that features prominently in twentieth century European literature. I have a number of these novels still on my reading list, including Curzio Malaparte’s Kaputt, Gunter Gräss’ Tin Drum, and Klaus Mann’s Mephisto, and, having been pleasantly surprised by Koestler’s Darkness at Noon, I am not willing to entirely write these off. Yet, I am once again starting to glance about for other types of narratives.


Next up, I am currently reading a biography of the Ethiopian king Haile Selassie titled King of Kings and a collection of short stories by Thomas Mann.