Nobel literature winners expose Europe’s fault lines
STOCKHOLM — Nobel Prizes for literature were awarded Thursday to two writers enmeshed in Europe’s social and political fault lines: a liberal Pole who has irked her country’s conservative government and an Austrian accused by many liberals of being an apologist for Serbian war crimes.
The rare double announcement — with the 2018 prize going to Poland’s Olga Tokarczuk and the 2019 award to Austria’s Peter Handke — came after no literature prize was awarded last year due to sex abuse allegations that rocked the Swedish Academy, which awards the literature prize.
Yet if prize organizers hoped to get through this year’s awards without controversy, they will likely be disappointed.
The Swedish Academy called Handke “one of the most influential writers in Europe” and praised his work for exploring “the periphery and the specificity of human experience.”
But the 76-year-old author has long faced criticism for his vigorous defense of the Serbs during the 1990s wars that devastated the Balkans as Yugoslavia disintegrated. He spoke at the 2006 funeral of former Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic, who at the time was facing war crimes charges, calling him “a rather tragic man.”
Handke — who once called for the Nobel Prize to be abolished — said he was “astonished” to receive the literature award.
“I never thought they would choose me,” Handke told reporters outside his home in suburban Paris. “It was very courageous by the Swedish academy, this kind of decision. These are good people.”
If Handke’s victory caused uncomfortable ripples, the choice of Tokarczuk was welcomed by liberal-minded authors and readers in her native Poland and beyond.
The 57-year-old novelist, known for her humanist themes and playful, subversive streak, has often irked Poland’s populists and conservatives. The academy said she was chosen for works that explore the “crossing of boundaries as a form of life.”
Already a major cultural figure in Poland, Tokarczuk has a growing international profile, especially since she won the Booker International prize in 2018 for the novel “Flights.”
She told Polish broadcaster TVN on Thursday that she was “terribly happy and proud” that her novels, which describe events in small towns in Poland “can be read as universal and can be important for people around the world.”
Handke has been a big name in European literature for decades, crafting works — starting with his first novel, “The Hornets,” in 1966 — that combine introspection and a provocative streak.
He was praised by the Swedish Academy for writing powerfully about catastrophe, notably in “A Sorrow Beyond Dreams,” his 1972 autobiographical novel about his mother’s suicide.
But his staunch support of the Serbs during the 1990s Balkans wars has set him at odds with many other Western intellectuals.
In a 1996 essay, “Justice for Serbia,” Handke accused Western news media of always depicting Serbs as aggressors. He denied that genocide was committed when Bosnian Serb troops massacred some 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys in the enclave of Srebrenica in 1995.
Novelist Jennifer Egan, president of PEN America, said the writers’ group deeply regretted the choice of Handke.
“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,” she said. “The literary community deserves better than this.”
Tokarczuk is only the 15th woman to win the Nobel literature prize in more than a century. Of the 11 Nobels awarded so far this week, all the other laureates have been men.
Olga Tokarczuk is only the 15th woman to win the prize in more than a century.
Peter Handke has been criticized for defending the Serbs during the 1990s war.