Artur Domosławski’s new book, The Excluded, devotes more than five hundred pages to people whom we’d rather not think about. We know they’re out there, often very close by, but we prefer to forget about their presence (and their proximity). We’d rather not ask ourselves questions – and not because the answers would be difficult to accept. On the contrary, we know them already, or at the very least we can guess what they are. Our reluctance stems from something else: it’s that once we’ve taken the answers on board, we’ll feel obliged to do something about them, to acquiesce, or else protest, to seek out our own guilt or clear ourselves of responsibility, to summon up empathy or release anger. Or else deal with it in a different way – by making an effort not to let any of these emotions have their say. Indifference requires action too.
But this is the whole purpose of reportage – to throw us off balance. That’s probably the only thing one can do by writing: to place a topic or a person and his life story before the readers, and force them to look him in the eyes.
In his new book, which is a sort of summation of twenty years of travelling in the countries of the South, Domosławski tries to draw as broad a portrait as possible of those “whom nobody will speak up for and nobody will miss”. That may be the most concise definition of the collective character central to this book (though Domosławski himself describes them as “the co-authors of this account”). Yet he does try to go deeper too, because the exclusion of the title affects such a large part of the world’s population that any attempt to condense the description would be incomplete. Of course Domosławski also narrows the range of his quest – or rather the ranges of exclusion. But he does that purely to show how much they differ from the precariat class of our times. His homo sacer – the damned, are “men, women and children who live in poverty, without prospects, often on the edge of the abyss, deprived of rights – political, civic or economic, and sometimes all at once.”
And yes, Domosławski brings us face to face with them and forces us to look them in the eyes: the mothers, wives and daughters of the men from Soacha in Colombia killed by the army, their deaths later “legalized” as the elimination of guerrillas – in exchange for cash bonuses. Or the relatives of the women of Ciudad Juárez in Mexico who were put to death merely because they could be; the culprits remain unpunished. Or the economic migrants and refugees, demonstrating at the same time the total inadequacy of those terms, how the words have changed their meaning and lost their precise capacity to describe certain phenomena. Or the families of children killed on the orders of petty shopkeepers in Brazil, because as “street scum” the former prevent the latter from running their businesses. Domosławski also shows how badly poverty destroys solidarity – how hard it is not just for us to deal with it, but also for those whom it directly affects; he cites questions that illustrate the indifference that comes with suffering: “As my life is worthless, how much can yours be worth to me?”
But it’s not just the excluded who are given the floor in this book – those who feel responsible for them get to speak out too. Domosławski also reminds us that it’s impossible to talk about the marginalized without introducing the people who do the excluding. As he demonstrates here, the division between these two groups is an inherent part of world history. There’s a phrase borrowed from Sven Lindqvist that recurs in The Excluded like a refrain: “We want genocide to have begun and ended with Nazism. That is what is most comforting.” In this book it is not a closing remark designed to shatter our illusions, but on the contrary, more of a starting line, a point of departure. Of course, the division of the world into those who “have”, whom “someone speaks up for”, and those who are refused even the basic right to exist is inscribed in the nature of the world, yet the scale of the disproportion and distance that divides them is exceptional. Nor is there any justification for abandoning efforts aimed at shortening this distance.
The Excluded is socially committed reportage; without actually entering the realm of opinion journalism, it employs tools characteristic of the genre. It takes a comprehensive approach to the topic of exclusion (based on a wealth of documentation), goes back to themes from years ago, and attempts to show it from many perspectives – from the level of the boat from which “peoples of the South will embark and knock at the gate”, but also from brochures advertising trips to war zones; from a chat over a cup of coffee somewhere deep in the interior, the reports of international organizations, and court transcripts; and from conversations with people whose answers nobody has ever been interested in before, such as Rana Ahmed from Pakistan, who wanted to get to Poland and work there, the mothers from Gaza, the Bedouin from the Jerusalem area, or Miriam from El Salvador, who “knew what it’s like to stab a man with a knife”, but managed to break free of the gang – all this and many other themes combine to form a book that chafes.
Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones