A response to Vol. 22’s ‘The Winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature’
Since the announcement of Peter Handke as the winner of the 2019 Nobel Prize in Literature, an old controversy about his comments regarding the Bosnian War has resurfaced. In 1995, 8000 Bosnian Muslims were killed in what the International Criminal Court acknowledged to be a genocide. After this atrocity, Handke travelled through Serbia, writing a text subtitled ‘Justice for Serbia’.
He later spoke at the funeral of Slobodan Milosevic, the former president of the Republic of Serbia who was tried for crimes against humanity in The Hague, but died before a verdict was reached. In an interview, Handke stated that he doesn’t buy into the grief of the mothers of Srebrenica.
Many supportive columns have tried to separate Handke’s literature from his politics, arguing that even if they don’t agree with his views on this particular issue, it is not representative of his œvre. Indeed, Handke was a well-known actor in the literary scene long before his comments caused uproar. The argument is that an author does not have to be perfect; Handke’s views on Srebrenica are not central to the work he has been recognised for. One of the people who disagree with this view happens to be Handke himself, who in a recent interview with the German newspaper Die Zeit stated that authors should be ethical. He then went on to double down on his position, claiming that not a single word he had ever written on the topic of Yugoslavia could be denounced.
Another approach is to accuse critics of not having read Handke correctly, as Suhrkamp, his publisher, argued in releasing a selection of quotes trying to rehabilitate the author. These quotes have been found not to be a representative sample of what Handke has said and written over the years. In fact, he has a long standing record of relativizing the massacre and defending the aggressors.
In Handke’s play Voyage by Dugout, he describes one of the protagonists, who was modelled after Novislav Djajic, as “innocently guilty” — the real-life Djajic has been found guilty of accessory to the murder of 14 muslims. Whilst Handke has acknowledged that the Srebrenica Massacre was the worst atrocity to have happened in Europe since World War Two, he later paddled back on this statement as he continued to relativise the scale of loss by saying there were only between 2000 and 4000 deaths.
Alfred Nobel wrote in his will that the Nobel Prize in Literature should go to someone who “produced the most outstanding work in an idealistic direction.” Critics acknowledge Handke’s literary talent, however, outstanding work alone is not enough to earn a Nobel Prize. The judges should have recognised this.