The Nobel Prize in Literature 2019 has been awarded to Peter Handke “for an influential work that with linguistic ingenuity has explored the periphery and the specificity of human experience.”
Born in 1942, Handke is an Austrian novelist and playwright, best known for works including Offending the Audience and The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick. He is also known for his film scripts, one of which, The Left-Handed Woman, an adaptation of his own novel, was nominated for a Golden Palm Award in 1978.
The awarding of the Nobel Prize to Handke has caused controversy, owing to his shameful political allegiances. In 1996, Handke’s travelogue, A Journey to the Rivers: Justice for Serbia, was widely excoriated for its sympathetic stance towards Serbia in the Yugoslav Wars, going as far as to describe Serbia as a victim of the wars.
In 1999, Salman Rushdie named him the runner-up for “International Moron of the Year” in the Guardian, for his “series of impassioned apologias for the genocidal regime of Slobodan Milošević”. Rushdie has stood by his comments, and other writers have condemned the award.
Slovenian author Miha Mazzini said “I will never forget the cold winter when Yugoslavia was falling apart and there was nothing on the shelves of the stores. We were a young family and my daughter was a toddler and it was bitterly cold. I’d spent the whole day in the queue for the heating oil and in the evening, almost frozen, I started reading Handke’s essay about Yugoslavia.
“He wrote of how he envied me: while those Austrians and Germans, those westerners, had fallen for consumerism, we, Yugoslavs, had to queue and fight for everything. Oh, how close to the nature we were! How less materialistic and more spiritualised we were! Even at the time, I found him cruel and totally self-absorbed in his naivety.”
Handke doubled down on his support for Serbian nationalism. He publicly stood by Milošević in the mid-2000s, despite his facing a war crimes tribunal, and even delivered a eulogy at Milošević’s funeral in 2006. He has never distanced himself from his comments.
It is a question for the philosophers among us about the extent to which art can be separated from its creator, and how far art can have aesthetic value separated from its political content. But I tend to agree with Jennifer Egan, president of literature and human rights organisation Pen America. She stated:
“We are dumbfounded by the selection of a writer who has used his public voice to undercut historical truth and offer public succor to perpetrators of genocide, like former Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic and Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic. We reject the decision that a writer who has persistently called into question thoroughly documented war crimes deserves to be celebrated for his ‘linguistic ingenuity.’ At a moment of rising nationalism, autocratic leadership, and widespread disinformation around the world, the literary community deserves better than this.
“We deeply regret the Nobel Committee on Literature’s choice.”