In awarding the Nobel Prize in literature to Peter Handke, the award committee said, “it’s not the academy’s mandate to balance literary quality against political considerations.” We need to talk about this.
The announcement of this year’s Nobel winner for literature to Peter Handke, has caught the world by surprise, including the writer himself, who in his reaction said that he was “astonished” and termed the decision “very courageous by the Swedish Academy”. And why not: Peter Handke is known to be a sympathiser of Slobodan Milosevic and an apologist for the Srebrenica genocide. Handke was so close to Milosevic that the latter bestowed the “Order of the Serbian Knight” upon him for his commitment to the Serbian cause: a cause of butchery and genocide.
Among his many preposterous comments, the worst was perhaps Handke’s suggestion that the Muslims of Sarajevo had “massacred themselves” in order to frame the Serbian military. As if this was not enough, Handke went as far as to suggest that there were atrocities committed on both sides in order to downplay the existence of “concentration camps” in Bosnia, where thousands of Muslim men, women and children had been tortured and killed, “True, there were intolerable camps between 1992 and 1995 on the territories of the Yugoslav republics, especially in Bosnia … But let’s stop automatically connecting these camps to the Serbs in Bosnia. There were also Croat camps and Muslim camps, and the crimes committed here and there are and will be judged at the Hague.”
And his outrageous denial of the Srebrenica genocide didn’t just end there. According to the Irish Times, while trying to deny the atrocities committed by the Serbs against the Muslims, Handke belligerently said, “You can stick your corpses up you’re a*se!” when critics pointed to the corpses of the victims as evidence of the genocide.
Handke has been so unpopular among the people in general for his support for Milosevic and the brutal violence they had perpetrated on the victims of Bosnia, that when Handke was awarded with the International Ibsen Award, he had to forego the cash prize of USD 400,000 citing “unfriendly reception” by the people, in the face of protests from various quarters.
A similar scenario played out earlier in 2006, when Handke had to turn down Germany’s Heinrich Heine prize after an outrage from the people, including members of Düsseldorf’s town counsel—people who were responsible for administering the prize’s cash award but threatened to veto the selection of Handke as the winner.
According to the Swedish Academy, Handke was selected as the winner “for an influential work that with linguistic ingenuity has explored the periphery and the specificity of human experience.” The Academy further added that Handke’s writing “shows and unending quest for existential meaning”. One wonders: if awarding a writer for their “unending quest for existential meaning” was a criterion, then why had not Milan Kundera been not awarded the Nobel prize in all these years. If Kundera had been deprived of the much deserving Nobel prize for his political views, then how did Handke manage to bag one? How about Borges?
There is an even bigger question at play here—one that has been debated in literary circles since the formation of the first such circle: Are the writer and the narrator two separate people? Is it even possible to separate the two, given one creates the other?
Literature is essentially about language, the language of the writer, with the help of which they form their ideas, and translate those ideas into books. This leads to another question: Is language separate form social reality? Is Handke’s social reality of his sympathy for Milosevic and his irrational denial of genocide separate from his language and his works? Handke’s “A Journey to the Rivers: Justice for Serbia”—in which he falsely tried to create a utopian image of Serbia—is the answer to all these questions.
The Swedish Academy in awarding Handke has committed multiple errors. It has insulted the memory of the thousands of people brutally killed in the genocide; and at a time when Islamophobia and far-right elements are alarmingly on the rise, the Swedish Academy has sent a very wrong message to the people—one that condones pro-genocide propaganda.
Alfred Nobel, in his will said that the award should be given to those writers who “have produced in the field of literature the most outstanding work in an ideal direction”. Based on the said will, it is difficult to justify or even comprehend how a writer like Handke qualifies for the award, unless of course the Swedish Academy has decided that pro-genocide propaganda is the “ideal direction”.
Tasneem Tayeb is a member of the editorial team at The Daily Star.
Her Twitter handle is @TayebTasneem.