The Swedish Academy has defended its controversial choice of Peter Handke as this year’s Nobel literature laureate, saying that it had “obviously not intended to reward a war criminal and denier of war crimes or genocide. But that’s the impression you get in the media right now.”
Writing in the Swedish paper Dagens Nyheter, academy members Mats Malm and Eric M Runesson admitted that Handke had “definitely made provocative, inappropriate and unclear statements on political issues”, according to a translation by the BBC. But they said that they had “found nothing in what he has written that involves attacks on civil society or respect for the equal value of all people”, and asked: “What we wonder is what sources the critics used and why Handke’s own statements are ignored.”
The choice of Handke has drawn widespread criticism, due to the Austrian writer’s denial of Serb atrocities during the Balkans war and his decision to attend the funeral of war criminal Slobodan Milošević. His 1996 book A Journey to the Rivers: Justice for Serbia contested the facts of the 1995 Srebrenica genocide. In 2006, it was reported that when critics pointed out to Handke that the bodies of victims were evidence of Serb atrocities, the Austrian writer replied: “You can stick your corpses up your arse.”
Handke has been described as “the Bob Dylan of genocide apologists” by Bosnian-American novelist Aleksandar Hemon. More than 38,000 people have signed a petition calling for the revocation of Handke’s Nobel. The charity Remembering Srebrenica has said that his win “endorsed ethnic and religious hatred, Serbian nationalism and genocide denial”.
Nobel committee for literature members Henrik Petersen and Rebecka Kärde, part of the group that evaluates the nominations for the Nobel and presents recommendations to the Swedish Academy, have also defended the choice. Petersen, writing in the Swedish newspaper Svenska Dagbladet, described Handke as an “anti-nationalistic” advocate for peace, according to a translation by AFP.
“In 50 years … Peter Handke, just like Beckett, will be among the most obvious choices the Swedish Academy ever made, of that I am certain,” he wrote.
Peterson argued that Handke is “radically unpolitical” in his writing, and said his support for the Serbs had been misunderstood. The main thrust of his argument was that the Serbian point of view was missing in German and Austrian media.
Also writing in Dagens Nyheter, Kärde said: “When we give the award to Handke, we argue that the task of literature is other than to confirm and reproduce what society’s central view believes is morally right.”
While she wrote that she didn’t want to “apologise for the hair-raising things that Handke has undoubtedly said and done”, she said that the Nobel committee concluded that he “absolutely deserves a Nobel prize”.
Handke himself has said that he will never talk to journalists again following a deluge of questions about his political views. “I’m standing at my garden gate and there are 50 journalists – and all of them just ask me questions like you do, and from not a single person who comes to me I hear they have read any of my works or know what I have written,” he told the Austrian broadcaster ORF last week. “It’s only questions like how does the world react. Reactions to reactions to reactions. I am a writer, I come from Tolstoy, from Homer, from Cervantes. Leave me in peace and don’t ask me questions like that.”