Books

PEN America Decries Peter Handke's Nobel Literature Prize Win

"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," a statement by PEN America said.

New Delhi: PEN America, a nonprofit organisation, has expressed dismay over the Swedish Academy’s decision to award the 2019 Nobel Prize in Literature to Peter Handke over his support for the Serbs during the 1990s Yugoslav war.

On Thursday, the Swedish Academy announced that the delayed 2018 Nobel Prize for literature would be awarded to Polish novelist and activist Olga Tokarczuk and the 2019 prize to Austrian writer Peter Handke.

In a statement issued from PEN America President Jennifer Egan, the organisation expressed regret over the Nobel Committee on Literature’s choice and said, “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”.

PEN America – whose name is an acronym that stands for Poets, Essayists, Novelists – identifies itself as an organisation that “stands at the intersection of literature and human rights to protect free expression” and boasts of a community of over 7,200 novelists, journalists, writers, editors, poets, essayists, playwrights, publishers, translators, agents, and other writing professionals across the US.

Pointing out that the organisation “does not generally comment on other institutions’ literary awards” and was cognisant of the fact that decisions were subjective, PEN America observed that the decision to award Peter Handke the 2019 Nobel Prize in Literature was an “exception”.

Also read: What the Nobel Prizes Are Not

The statement asserted that its 1948 PEN Charter was committed to “fighting against mendacious publication, deliberate falsehood, and distortion of facts” and dedicated to working to “dispel all hatreds and to champion the ideal of one humanity living in peace and equality.”

The statement further maintained that at a time of “rising nationalism, autocratic leadership, and widespread disinformation”, the decision to felicitate “a writer who has persistently called into question thoroughly documented war crimes” should not be celebrated for his “linguistic ingenuity”

Handke, whose best-known works include The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick, and Slow Homecoming. has been widely condemned and criticised for being an apologist for the former president of Serbia and alleged war criminal Slobodan Milosevic, who was charged with genocide in connection with the war in Bosnia in 1992-95. Handke has previously denied that a genocide took place in Srebrenica and also made an appearance at Milosevic’s funeral.

Handke’s win has elicited criticism from several members of the literary community including British author Hari Kunzru, Slovenian author Miha Mazzini and British novelist Salman Rushdie.

The Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama referred to the Nobel academy’s decision as a “disgraceful choice” while Kosovo President Hashim Thaci tweeted that the academy’s decision had “brought immense pain to countless victims”.

“Have we become so numb to racism, so emotionally desensitised to violence, so comfortable with appeasement that we can overlook one’s subscription and service to the twisted agenda of a genocidal maniac?” tweeted Kosovo’s ambassador to the US,  Vlora Citaku.

The acting foreign minister of Albania Gent Cakaj also tweeted that he was appalled by the decision to award the Nobel Prize in Literature to a “genocide denier” and called it an “ignoble and shameful act”.

In 2014, Handke had also called for the Nobel Prize to be “abolished” and claimed that he did not admire its choices. Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek said that Handke’s Nobel Prize win this year “proves that he was right”.