Nobel Laureate Peter Handke's Critics and Supporters

Genocide denier or poet of the Balkans? In November, around 120 authors, literary scholars, translators and artists expressed their unease in an open letter.

After a year marked by scandals that led to the postponement of the 2018 Nobel Prize in Literature, the Swedish Academy was eager to leave its problems behind. Yet the body responsible for the award has been facing even more criticism since announcing that the Nobel laureate in literature for 2019 was Austrian writer Peter Handke.

Fueled by well-known writers and intellectuals, the debate around the controversial author has been raging in German-speaking and international media.

Handke’s polarising attitude toward the Yugoslav Wars

At the core of the discussion is Handke’s political interpretation of the ethnic conflicts and wars of independence that were fought in the former Yugoslavia from 1991 to 2001. During the conflicts, the writer showed solidarity with Serbia and, according to critics, trivialised or denied the war crimes committed by the Serbs. In 2006, he gave a speech at the funeral of former Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic, who up until his death was standing trial for war crimes and crimes against humanity committed in Kosovo.

Along with other organisations, the international human rights organisation Society for Threatened Peoples denounced the Nobel decision. A petition on change.org, signed by more the 57,000 people to date, is calling for the award to be revoked.

Also read: Olga Tokarczuk, Peter Handke Named Literature Nobel Winners for 2018, 2019

Handke has refused to apologise for his views and the Swedish Academy hasn’t revoked the prize.

Still, when the author shows up at the Academy’s press conference in Stockholm on Friday – which also happens to be his 77th birthday — he is bound to face protests and critical questions by journalists.

The discussion in Germany

In Germany, one of Handke’s most prominent critics was novelist Sasa Stanisic, who was born in Bosnia and Herzegovina. In his acceptance speech at the 2019 Frankfurt Book Fair for the year’s German Book Prize, won for his novel Herkunft, Stanisic expressed his disgust with the Nobel committee’s decision.

“I had the good fortune to escape what Peter Handke fails to describe in his texts,” said Stanisic, who fled to Germany with his family in 1992. He added that he was furious about the way Handke builds in “lies or a misrepresentation of reality through storytelling,” by pretending not to know the truth and inventing facts, thereby replacing actual facts with fabrications.

Croatian-German writer Alida Bremer is another sharp critic of the Nobel laureate: “Handke liked to play the Balkan expert, who is, however, able to justify himself as a poet who is not interested in facts,” she told DW in October. In an essay for the culture magazine Perlentaucher, she demonstrates in detail how Handke’s literary work is inseparable from his political actions.

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When Suhrkamp Verlag, which has been publishing Handke’s books for over 50 years, released a defense of the author, literary scholar Vahidin Preljevic, a professor of German Studies at the University of Sarajevo, replied that the Austrian novelist has been “unflinchingly representing the same monstrous narrative, a cynical falsification of history” since 1996. Handke, Preljevic added, has transgressed boundaries with his “aesthetic utopia” and has held “the whole Balkan region, especially Serbia, hostage to his poetic obsession.”

‘Anti-Handke propaganda’ 

But others disagree. Such an understanding of Handke’s work is a downright “monstrous insinuation,” said Handke researcher and online journalist Lothar Struck, one of the Austrian novelist’s many supporters. “The great writer Handke has earned the Nobel Prize 10 times,” assured fellow Austrian Nobel laureate Elfriede Jelinek. For her, it’s all about literary quality.

Authors like Germany’s Eugen Ruge also protested against the scale of the criticism. In November, around 120 authors, literary scholars, translators and artists expressed their unease in an open letter. They felt that the criticism against Handke was no longer rational: “It consists almost entirely of hatred, resentment, insinuations, distortions and the like. It has degenerated into anti-Handke propaganda.”

No concessions from Handke

In various interviews, including in the German weekly Die Zeit, Peter Handke has made no concessions. On the contrary, he has repeated his known positions, saying that he was concerned with “justice for Serbia.”

“Not a word that I have written about Yugoslavia is denounceable, not a single one. It is literature,” said Handke. He claimed that he has never expressed sympathy for Milosevic: “I did not bow to him, not even for a moment, neither internally or externally.”

To further analyse the criticisms and whether Handke deserves the Nobel prize, one could turn to the Handke Bibliothek, a collection published by Suhrkamp Verlag in German. It contains everything that the criticised Nobel laureate has ever published in book form – and it makes up 14 volumes and has more than 11,400 pages.

This article was originally published in DW. You can read it here.