A non-reader’s guide to 2019 Nobel prize for literature

Jinoy Jose P | Updated on October 16, 2019 Published on October 11, 2019

Who’s Peter Handke? And why his selection has triggered a controversy?

Nobel prizes court controversy every year. Even the first Nobel, for peace, did upset many. A lot of people felt it should go to peace activist Bertha von Suttner, but French economist Frédéric Passy and founder of the Red Cross, Henri Dunant, won it. The first winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, in 1901 again, also made many frown at it. The winner, a French poet called Sully-Prudhomme had almost stopped writing or publishing poems since 1888, and not many critics and readers felt the poet was eligible for the coveted award. How many of us remember Sully-Prudhomme today? Well, the answer is blowing in the wind.

And that takes us to Bob Dylan, who was awarded the 2016 Nobel Prize in Literature for “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.” That decision too triggered a controversy, as many felt it was an insult of the musician whose songs marked a unique era in American as well as world music and the literary quality of his works was just a tip of the iceberg of genius and the award in a way mocked his other talents. But in 2017, when Japanese-born British novelist Kazuo Ishiguro, won the prize, not many found it inappropriate and the literary world felt at ease. Only to be jolted again in 2018 when the award was postponed “in view of the currently diminished academy and the reduced public confidence in the academy” (following a sexual assault controversy, if you want that in plain English).

Now, in 2019, two winners were announced, for years 2018 and 2019 -- Polish writer Olga Tokarczuk and Peter Handke, an Austrian author. The choice of Handke has created a controversy with a series of authors, writers bodies and several readers with Twitter handles and social media profiles lambasting the writer for his alleged allegiance to Serbain nationalist sentiments and his sympathies for former Serbian resident Slobodan Milošević, who more than one international agencies held responsible for the Bosnian genocide in which more than 8,000 people were murdered. And the whole issue has triggered the age-old question of whether a writer should be judged for his works and the politics they represent or his personal biases and political leanings.

Who’s Peter Handke?

Born in 1942, in Griffen, Austria, Handke has written novels, poems and plays. He has translated works from many languages, written and directed films and has won several awards across the globe. Many of his works have created controversies for their content. Interestingly, and quite appropriately for the day, one of his popular plays from the 1960s is called Offending the Audience (Publikumsbeschimpfung). His novel The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick (Die Angst des Tormanns beim Elfmeter). Handke has a great reputation in the world of films as well. He collaborated with director Wim Wenders to produce great works such as Wings of Desire (Der Himmel über Berlin). Handke now lives in Chaville, France.

Handke’s literary works are dense and philosophical. This writer’s favourite, A Sorrow Beyond Dreams, translated from the German by Ralph Manheim, is based on the life of Handke's mother and mixes several genres into one, from biography to fiction. Handke’s political stances caused controversies in the past, much like his takes on the Yugoslav Wars. A lot of people think his speech at the funeral of Milošević legitimised and justified the war criminal’s deeds and endorsed Serbian nationalism.

His critics feel the award will endorse his controversial stands. That’s debatable. Several great writers had controversial political positions. Ezra Pound, for one, was a Nazi sympathiser. And the Swedish Academy itself is known for its biases when it comes to selecting Nobel prize winners. It’s penchant for dissidents in Communist regimes and governments that are not so fond of Western regimes and European ways of life is quite telling.

Handke’s works, from what we can gather so far, do not reflect his personal biases. But thanks to his Slovenian roots, the writer has been a supporter of Serbian nationalist sentiments during the infamous Balkans war. He was very vocal about his displeasure towards Muslims in Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Handke reportedly said the Muslims had killed their own people and later blamed the Serbs. This statement is interpreted by many as a denial of the ‘Srebrenica’ genocide of July 1995 genocide in which more than 8,000 Bosniaks were killed during the Bosnian war.

Just after the Novel literature award was announced, Twitter exploded in anger, with several authors calling the decision ugly, wrong and an ethical bluder. According to author Hari Kunzru, “Handke is a troubling choice for a Nobel committee that is trying to put the prize on track after recent scandals… He is a fine writer, who combines great insight with shocking ethical blindness.” A collective calléd ‘Remembering Srebrenica’ termed the move “Outrageous”. “Handke - a defender of war criminal Slobodan Milošević and genocide denier who once suggested that Bosnian Muslims staged the atrocities in #Srebrenica and Sarajevo - awarded The Nobel Prize in Literature for 2019!,” it tweeted.

Pen America, a writers’ collective, said: “We are dumbfounded by the selection of a writer who has used his public voice to undercut historical truth & offer public succor to perpetrators of genocide."  “Free speech is one thing, excusing Slobodan Milošević mass murder & genocide is another. Could you imagine Nobel literature prize going to a writer who praised or excused Osama bin Laden or Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi.” lamented another Twitter-er.

The issue is going to snowball into a bigger controversy in the coming days, and the debate around the blurry lines that separate writers and their politics is only going to get stronger.

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Published on October 11, 2019
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