Karpowicz’s first two books, "Uncool" and "The Miracle", have already demonstrated that he is an original and highly inventive author. But in "The Emperor’s New Flower" he has surpassed himself. In fact it is hard to define this book by genre, as it is a mixture of elements including reportage, fiction, a travel diary and something like a digressive epic prose poem. In his usual perverse way, Karpowicz presents the concrete facts of the narrative he weaves like this: “I fare-dodge my way around digressions…. I’m interested in everything I write about, but at the same time I don’t care about anything”. He tells the story of his travels in Ethiopia, a poor African country that has had a tough historical experience, and that readers might know about from Ryszard Kapuściński’s superb book of reportage, "The Emperor". In narrative full of digressions that quivers like the air in the African heat, he describes his clash with a foreign culture where whites are treated in a particular way and his struggles with some Kafkaesque bureaucracy, writes about modern Ethiopia and its inhabitants, provides extracts from the country’s history, and presents some fascinating ancient sites and landscapes that few Westerners are aware of. And he seasons it all with a large dose of subtle humour and irony, which has just about become his trademark.
If I think about this book, one word invariably comes to mind: “strange”. Yes, this is strange prose, but this oddness, mainly of form, has a purpose, or at least I think it has. This is how Karpowicz has tried to assimilate the “strangeness of existence” that struck him as he travelled about Ethiopia.
After a hearty breakfast I decided to venture out on my first walk along the streets of the Ethiopian metropolis. I was also interested in seeing if they’d try to steal something. The increasingly reliable guidebook talked about swarms of children, beggars, conmen, pickpockets and thieves of all kinds. It noted, however, that in the New Flower (which is what Addis Ababa means in Amharic), the city’s bark is worse than its bite. Further on it says the most natural reaction to the charms of Addis is to run away as fast as possible. Then comes some good advice on how to do just that.
Full of good faith and the best intentions I get up, pay, and check the tackle securing my theft-proof wallet full of traveller’s cheques, money and documents (greatly depleted by the absence of my passport).
Addis is situated at an altitude of some 2,400 metres above sea level, which make it the third capital city in the world measured by elevation above the surface of the seas and oceans. Mr Briggs’ guidebook is not the only one. From another book (published by Camerapix) I unearth the following charming description, written at a safe distance from reality or by someone who has been bribed: “Broad, three-lane streets, splendid architecture, wonderful weather and picturesque donkey caravans crossing the boulevards make New Flower a city worth recommending”. As if that weren’t enough, it mentions a wealth of cosy cafes and patisseries that reminds one of Rome. Of course.
I go outside onto a street called Muniy. It is short and steep. Instead of going up hill I decide to go down. Although the street is short, and to tell the truth, unambiguously single-lane, several people have already managed to ask for money. I vigorously pretend I can’t hear them. For the time being the idea of defective hearing works perfectly. No one repeated his request. That is, they did, but only when I came back, so it doesn’t count.
I turn right into a street with the familiar name of Wavel. I will come to be capable of naming the streets, but it’s of no use. Most of the streets have no signs – the names only appear on maps of the city, and the only people who use them are white tourists, and, a matter on which opinions vary, the Ethiopian post. Another complication is the fact that every one of the more attractive roads or avenues has appropriated the right to two, three, or even more synonyms. These names are generally interchangeable. There would be nothing wrong with this extravagance if everyone knew them all.
Unfortunately… If you get lost, anyone you ask is extremely unlikely to share his topographical knowledge with you. However, if by chance you and the person you have asked are both saying the same thing, there is no cause to rejoice, for several possible reasons. To convey the full drama of the situation, I’ll describe the most likely scenarios for someone who’s lost. Your addressee doesn’t know English, and simply chants what you have just said. Your addressee knows English, but doesn’t know what you are talking about, so he does some chanting just to have a bit of a chat. Your addressee knows English and knows what you are talking about, but has no idea where the street you’re looking for is, so he does some chanting to avoid offending you. Your addressee knows English, knows what you’re talking about, and knows – he promises – how to get there.
You naive tourist! You are not out of trouble at all!
In the best instance your addressee is thinking of the street’s third name, which went out of common usage several years ago (but not in the part of town you have ended up in), while you are thinking of the first name, so old that everyone has forgotten it ages ago. If you follow the directions it has just taken you no mean effort to obtain, you are sure to discover some extremely obscure parts of town. And it’s really worth it. Your situation will not change greatly – you can’t get more lost; you’re either lost, or you’re not, there’s nothing in the middle. Thus spoke Protestant teaching on destiny. As you’re so determined to travel, you’ve got what you wanted – you’re travelling to a place where you’ve not yet been.
Despite appearances, the Ethiopian fondness for creating words and names has deep aesthetic and philosophical motives. You only have to reason the way they do. Some important person thinks up a name. He doesn’t usually ask the citizens if they like the new name and if it suits the topographical reality. He doesn’t take the trouble to check what this particular avenue, for instance, was called before, because it must have had some sort of a name – the city abhors a void. So then what? Go along with the official’s incompetence just like that? Not on your life! He can call it what he likes from the power of his throne.
Let’s stay on this track. It’s a safe one – we won’t get lost.
So now we’ve got a name. But the world never stops moving, new buildings keep springing up and old ones keep falling down, the street’s alive, it keeps changing its character – sometimes it even gets tarmacked. So then what? Is one single name supposed to describe it for ever?
You have to change the name, adapt it to the current situation – that’s the only way for it to keep up with reality, the only way you can reflect the wealth and sparkle of the universe. That’s why the Ethiopians use several names at once. Quite often the names move about. This was once Beautiful Street, but a tower block was put up: and maybe it was beautiful, but it isn’t now. Whereas not far from here, they’ve planted some eucalyptus trees, and they look beautiful, so the street gets called Beautiful. Ah, but the police have failed to guard the eucalyptus trees and they’ve been cut down for firewood. The eucalyptuses were actually the only pretty thing, so now what’s left is Narrow Alley. But not far from here…
In all this linguistic activity there is plenty of scope for emphasising your own individuality. I like the tower block – change the name if you wish, but to me it’s still Beautiful Street.
I must admit that at first this world that’s constantly being renamed, re-created from scratch and that’s as fickle as a rainbow, seemed hostile, the African version of the urban jungle. Later on, however, once I was over the painful process of adapting, I came to like this custom, the confusion and commotion without reservations.
Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones