Why this year’s doubleheader Nobel Prize for literature is so controversial

Polish author Olga Tokarczuk
Polish author Olga Tokarczuk (L) on September 17, 2018, in Krakow, and Austrian novelist and playwright Peter Handke on November 22, 2012, in Salzburg. BEATA ZAWREL,BARBARA GINDL/APA/AFP via Getty Images

Olga Tokarczuk and Peter Handke have won the Nobel Prize for literature. Handke’s win is complicated.

The Swedish Academy announced the winners for the 2018 and 2019 Nobel Prizes for Literature on Thursday, a list that is already courting some controversy.

The 2018 Prize was delayed for a year after a sexual assault scandal engulfed the Swedish Academy. But the award has now gone to the Polish author Olga Tokarczuk,who won the Man Booker International Award last year for her novel Flights. (She also won Poland’s prestigious Nike Award.) Tokarczuk wasn’t a favorite to win the award but she’s a welcome choice: She’s been long considered one of the greatest writers in Poland’s oft-overlooked literary scene.

The 2019 Prize, meanwhile, is going to Austrian author Peter Handke, and that choice is proving much more divisive. Handke is the world’s most prominent apologist for the Serbian dictator and alleged war criminal Slobodan Milošević, who was charged in 2001 with the Bosnian Genocide. (Milošević died in prison in 2006 during his trial before a verdict was reached.) Handke eulogized Milošević at his funeral, and during the war he repeatedly spoke out in favor of Milošević’s regime, claiming that the dictator was being misrepresented by Western media and that— most infamously — the massacres of Bosnian Muslim men and boys by Serbian troops were staged by Muslims themselves.

For many observers, the Swedish Academy’s decision to laud such a notorious figure, just days after announcing its intentions to move away from a “male-oriented” and “Eurocentric” perspective, is baffling. It “seems incredibly strange,” writes the GuardianThe Week called it “startlingly controversial.”

The free speech organization PEN America issued a statement formally condemning the Nobel Committee’s decision. “PEN America does not generally comment on other institutions’ literary awards. We recognize that these decisions are subjective and that the criteria are not uniform. However, today’s announcement of the 2019 Nobel Prize in Literature to Peter Handke must be an exception,” said PEN America president and Pulitzer Prize winner Jennifer Egan. “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.”

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

“As a passionate believer in literature’s eternal beauty and power to enrich human experience and as a victim of ethnic cleansing and genocide, I’m appalled by the decision to award the Nobel Prize in literature to a genocide denier. What an ignoble and shameful act we are witnessing in 2019!” tweeted Acting Foreign Minister of Albania Gent Cakaj.

Handke, whose best-known work includes the play Offending the Audience, is not a stranger to this kind of controversy. In 2006, he was nominated for the city of Düsseldorf, Germany’s Heinrich Heine prize, given to writers who promote solidarity in the human race. But after outrage from onlookers — including members of Düsseldorf’s town counsel who were in charge of administering the prize’s cash award and who threatened to veto Handke’s win — Handke turned down the prize before it had to be revoked.

And in 2014, Handke was awarded the International Ibsen Award, the world’s most prestigious theater prize. The announcement was greeted by protests from human rights organizations, with PEN International’s Norwegian chapter formally condemning the choice. (Handke accepted the award but declined the $400,000 cash prize, citing his “unfriendly reception.”)

Handke is also reportedly not a fan of the Nobel Prize as an institution. He declared in 2014 that it “should be abolished” because it “promotes the false canonization of literature.”

The politics of Handke’s win stand out in especially sharp contrast when he is placed next to Tokarczuk, an outspoken progressive in increasingly reactionary Poland. After Tokarczuk mentioned Poland’s dark history of colonialism in a televised interview in 2014, outraged right-wing nationalists named her a “targowiczanin” — an old word for traitor — and her publisher had to hire bodyguards to protect her.

In a statement, the Swedish Academy says that Tokarczuk’s win comes in recognition of “a narrative imagination that with encyclopedic passion represents the crossing of boundaries as a form of life,” and Handke’s “for an influential work that with linguistic ingenuity has explored the periphery and the specificity of human experience.”

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