Twenty years before Peter Handke would become a Nobel laureate, he won another title. 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 Miloševic". (The winner was actor Charlton Heston, for being a gun lobbyist.)
The Austrian playwright, whose Slovenian heritage had inspired in him a fervent nationalism during the Balkans war, had publicly suggested that Sarajevo’s Muslims had massacred themselves and blamed the Serbs, and denied the Srebrenica genocide. Seven years after Rushdie’s scorching condemnation, in 2006, he would also attend war criminal Miloševic’s funeral.
On Thursday, after the announcement of Handke's win of the prize worth just over €825,000, Rushdie told the Guardian: "I have nothing to add today, but I stand by what I wrote then."
Mats Malm, an academy member and its permanent secretary, said “the Nobel Prize in literature is awarded on literary and aesthetic ground. It is not in the Academy’s mandate to balance literary quality against political considerations.”
The decision to award Handke the 2019 laureateship – alongside Poland's Olga Tokarczuk for the 2018 medal – was widely criticised by observers.
Human rights organisation PEN America said it was “dumbfounded” by the award to “a writer who undercut historical truth”.
“We are dumbfounded by the selection of a writer who has used his public voice to undercut historical truth and offer public succour 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.” .
The Albanian acting foreign minister called the Handke award “an ignoble and shameful act”. Kosovo’s ambassador to the US tweeted that “in a world of brilliant writers, the Noble committee chooses to reward a propagator of ethnic hatred and violence”.
British-Indian novelist Hari Kunzru said 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.”
Kunzru, who has taught the laureate’s work to his students, said he believed that Handke would have won the Nobel earlier, “had he not decided to act as a propagandist for the genocidal Miloševic regime”. He added: “More than ever we need public intellectuals who are able to make a robust defence of human rights in the face of the indifference and cynicism of our political leaders. Handke is not such a person.”
Slavoj Zizek, Slovenian philosopher and longtime critic of Handke, described the writer as an apologist for war crimes. “In 2014, Handke called for the Nobel to be abolished, saying it was a ‘false canonisation’ of literature. The fact that he got it now proves that he was right. This is Sweden today: an apologist of war crimes gets a Nobel prize while the country fully participated in the character assassination of the true hero of our times, Julian Assange. Our reaction should be: not the literature Nobel prize for Handke but the Nobel peace prize for Assange.”
Slovenian author Miha Mazzini said: “Some artists sold their human souls for ideologies – Hamsun and Nazism – some for hate – Celine and his rabid antisemitism – some for money and power – Kusturica – but the one that offended me the most was Handke with his naivety for Miloševic regime. And it’s personal.
“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’ve 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’s politics have long been derided by former friends and authors. In 2008, novelist Jonathan Littell remarked: “He might be a fantastic artist, but as a human being he is my enemy … he’s an asshole.” Alain Finkielkraut called him “an ideological monster”, while Susan Sontag, who spent several months in Sarajevo during the Bosnian war staging a performance of Waiting for Godot, said Handke’s comments had “finished” him among his former friends in New York.
Tokarczuk, whose work is political and staunchly anti-nationalist, told Polish newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza that she was “happy” Handke had been honoured. “I value him very much. It’s great that the Swedish Academy appreciated literature from the central part of Europe, she said.
Others too were pleased by Handke’s win: Austrian president Alexander Van der Bellen called Handke’s voice “unfussy and unique … We have a lot to thank Peter Handke for. I hope he knows that.”
Lojze Wieser, a publisher in Carinthia who has done several projects with Handke in German and Slovenian, told Reuters that no one had expected Handke’s victory.“He is the greatest innovator of language and word in global literature,” Wieser said.
Handke, visibly moved, said he was surprised to be awarded the prize. “I was astonished, yes. It was very courageous by the Swedish Academy, this kind of decision,” he told reporters at his home in the small town of Chaville outside Paris. “These are good people.”
“I feel a strange kind of freedom, I don’t know, a freedom, which is not the truth, as if I were innocent,” he said. – Guardian, New York Times, agencies