No­bel lit­er­a­ture win­ners ex­pose Europe’s fault lines

The Morning Call - - NATION & WORLD - By Jill Law­less and David Keyton

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.

SASCHA SCHUERMANN/ GETTY-AFP

Olga Tokar­czuk is only the 15th woman to win the prize in more than a cen­tury.

FRAN­COIS MORI/AP

Peter Handke has been crit­i­cized for de­fend­ing the Serbs dur­ing the 1990s war.

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