The Emperor

Makenzy Orcel (trans. Nathan H. Dize)

May 10, 2024 
The following is from Makenzy Orcel's The Emperor. Makenzy Orcel is an award-winning novelist and poet and a Chevalier des arts et des lettres of the French Republic. He is the author of The Immortals and A Human Burden. Nathan H. Dize is a translator, assistant professor of French at Washington University in Saint Louis, and a scholar of French Caribbean literature.

‘A man without a job is like a boat without a rudder, or a ship­wreck,’ said the Very Old Sheep. I loved sharing my happiness with him. This yoke of misery was my Our Father, my Hail Mary, my Dahomey, my four hundred and one lwa, my twenty-one nations, my painful bread, my enraged drums in the heart of bodies, my trance.

Imagine a long hallway full of men, not one s ingle woman, half-asleep, bent over, barely supporting themselves, ravaged by the boredom and bitterness of a lifetime, revenants, lost at sea, unravelled. This hallway of goats for the slaughter. There were also young graduates, ulcerated by their National Education, builders in whom people entrust the construction of nothing anymore, disappointed and resigned, with much less than they’re worth so that they don’t die, their eyes full of shame.

This hallway led to the machine room where the newspaper was produced. Long after we’ve finished printing it, the whirring lingered in our heads, like the barking voice of the foreman, pul­ling us out of our somnolence—jounal la parèy! The newspaper’s ready! We move our asses. Everyone grabs a bundle and throws himself into the mouth of the street. Time passes by. The routine sets in.

Five o’clock in the morning. The streets are still empty and suspect. I’ve seen them in all their configurations. The most gorgeous rosary of stars in magical sunrises. Under attack by fire­arms, when the armed gangs go at it prodigiously. The fear of get­ting stranded on a dead-end street during a delivery made my guts churn. There are some delivery men who, after getting attacked or witnessing something they shouldn’t have, preferred to rot in unemployment, without a penny to their name, dying of hunger. Being a newspaper delivery man in this city, like many jobs, was like walking a tightrope over an abyss. What’s more, I delivered mainly in the neighbourhoods with the worst reputations. The question that kept coming back to me was this, how could people living in material conditions as hard as these read? It’s surprising but true, affirmed my Enlightened Colleague, the readers of the newspaper are the poor, the paupers, the good-for-nothings, us, the eternal dreamers. The rich are a bunch of sharks, risk takers who only swear by profit. We’re paid nothing to enrich them even further. Delivering their lies. Their dolled-up schemes. Their smoky measures. The enticing opportunities offered to the winners. The Unavoidable Death to the losers. In any case, it’s easier to sit back in your arm­chair and leaf through the polluted air of the times than it is to stick your nose outside and attempt to change them. These are the analgesic writings the watchdogs of the status quo use to brainwash us, to crush us, to jettison us all . . .

My Enlightened Colleague was furious about everything. I’m surprised that he didn’t do what I did before me—only, would he have had the courage to wait for the police to arrive? I under­stood his anger. To me, the newspaper wasn’t the right place for him, considering his knowledge and lucidity. But is there a place in this country for those who are angry, who refuse to accept injustice and the sanctioned moral order? Where corruption and impunity stand as institutions among others. And, on the strength of their parliamentary pleasantries, feeble politicians force-feed us lies. Parlay us into nothing. Fill us with rage. Search for ways to kill us even more. In the most spectacular way possible. They’re paid for it with our money, our sweat, our blood. Flaunting our foundational liberties. Trampling our laws. Nobody trusts anyone anymore. We have nothing left. It’s anarchy. A blind search for personal glory. The sanctioning of ignorance, rape, death, putrefaction and hellfire. An ungoverned country. The President of the Republic dropped his pants to moon the children of a village that had never seen an official’s ass. A beautiful, public ass. ‘The coffers of the state are empty,’ he bemoaned. From the street, we saw him wiggling his hips in his office to the rara music played by those protesting his political regime. During the opening of a sidewalk that had cost the state a goldmine, he reiterated his promise to continue pushing the country down the path of development. Millions of green dollar bills disappeared into shell companies and dead-end contracts. On an official visit to a large European city, he declared this, ‘If my political adversaries in Haiti knew how good I have it here, they would take advantage of my absence to foment a coup d’état. This one senator is a car thief and a kidnapper. And from time to time, random stories are every bit as good as the great catastrophes that surpass them. A motorcyclist is caught in the act with a cadaver on his bike. A battered woman ended up stabbing her husband. She cooked up his body and invited over the neighbours who brought their appetites. The body of a young girl was found on top of a pile of trash, the latest in a long list. Armed bandits divide up the day and the night. The Minister of Justice took a year-long sabbatical to brainstorm a new way of ordering justice. Political discourse closely resembles a religious message; we don’t know what’s hidden beneath the surface, or how much it concerns us, and everyone is capable of the unexpected in order to defend their own truth. In short, this country is a sea of shit. A tomb. For those of whom it represents an opportunity, a liveable place, they’re not from here and they know nothing about it except through their shady mission or their petty pleasures. Without mentioning the wealthy who do nothing but pig out and pig out some more . . . As if all you had to do was pinch your nose for carrion to turn into ham. And anonymous, invisible heroes, who sacrifice themselves to achieve beautiful things that nobody will recognize, that you won’t read about in any newspaper. In short, we live in a black hole. We’d all leave if we could, every single one of us.’ ­­­­


Reprinted with permission from The Emperor by Makenzy Orcel, forthcoming from Seagull Books in June 2024. English translation © Nathan H. Dize, 2024.

More Story
A new report tracks workplace retaliation against pro-Palestinian media workers. For some months, members of the Freelance Solidarity Project and the National Writers Union (NWU) have been tracking, compiling...

Become a Lit Hub Supporting Member: Because Books Matter

For the past decade, Literary Hub has brought you the best of the book world for free—no paywall. But our future relies on you. In return for a donation, you’ll get an ad-free reading experience, exclusive editors’ picks, book giveaways, and our coveted Joan Didion Lit Hub tote bag. Most importantly, you’ll keep independent book coverage alive and thriving on the internet.