Nobel Literature Prize judges defend controversial award for Peter Handke

Peter HandkeImage copyright

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Peter Handke spoke at the funeral of former Serb leader Slobodan Milosevic

Nobel Prize for Literature panel members have defended their decision to give this year’s award to controversial Austrian author Peter Handke.

The choice has been criticised because of Handke’s vocal support for the Serbs during the 1990s Yugoslav war.

Nobel committee member Henrik Petersen said Handke was “radically unpolitical” in his writing and that his support for the Serbs had been misunderstood.

Fellow committee member Rebecka Kärde said he “absolutely deserves” to win.

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While Handke’s books, plays, poems and films have been widely praised over the past five decades, the announcement on 10 October was followed by howls of condemnation from his critics.

In an article in Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter, two Academy members, Mats Malm and Erik M Runesson, accepted that Handke had “definitely made provocative, inappropriate and unclear statements on political issues”.

But they wrote: “The Swedish Academy has 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.”

The organisation “has found nothing in what he has written that involves attacks on civil society or respect for the equal value of all people”, they added. “What we wonder is what sources the critics used and why Handke’s own statements are ignored.”

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The Nobel Literature Prize winner receives a medal, a diploma and £740,000 in prize money

In a 1996 book, Handke cast doubt on the Serbian massacre at Srebenica and accused the Bosnian Muslims of staging attacks. In a TV interview in 1999, he compared Serbia’s fate to that of Jews during the Holocaust – although he later apologised for that “slip of the tongue”. In 2006, he spoke at the funeral of Serb leader Slobodan Milosevic, who was accused of genocide and other war crimes.

‘An obvious choice’

However, the Academy quoted a 2006 article in which Handke said the Srebrenica massacre was the worst crime against humanity in Europe since Word War Two.

The choice was also defended by Henrik Petersen and Rebecka Kärde, who sat on the Nobel Committee for Literature, which recommends the winners to the Swedish Academy.

Petersen predicted that in the future, Handke would be considered “among the most obvious choices” for the prize. Writing in the newspaper Svenska Dagbladet, he described Handke as an advocate for peace and said he was “anti-nationalistic”.

Kärde said she didn’t want to “apologise for the hair-raising things that Handke has undoubtedly said and done”.

Handke’s anger

She explained: “The Nobel Committee must read the texts on Yugoslavia among another 70 works written over a period of 50 years. Which we did.” They concluded that the author of books including Repetition, My Year in the No-Man’s-Bay and Die Obstdiebin “absolutely deserves a Nobel Prize”.

She added: “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.”

Handke himself reacted angrily to the response to his win, telling journalists: “No-one who comes to me says that he has read any of my works, that he knows what I have written. It’s just questions like how does the world react, reactions to reactions.”

He said he would never speak to the media again, according to Austrian broadcaster ORF.

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